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Mental health and youth’s screen time

Mental health has become a much larger part of the discussion of overall health. This topic interests me for several reasons. One, I believe that neglecting mental health in the conversation of overall health leaves out a huge component of the whole equation. Two, there seems to be an alarming trend of young people who are suffering from mental health issues. I wrote about the latter issue back in July for the Carolina Journal. On the topic I theorized: 

What’s the reason behind such a trend? My theory is an increase in screen time among young people, which has led to decreased social capital. Described by Robert Put­nam is his seminal book, “Bowling Alone,” social capital is defined as “features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve efficacy of society by facilitating coordinated actions.” Putnam’s book examines data to show American’s have become less engaged with each other over time, thus decreasing social capital. I believe the decline in social capital among younger generations due to increased screen time may be con­tributing to the rising number of individuals with behavioral health problems.

I cite some studies in the piece that lead me to believe there is some causal connection stemming from young people’s screen use to increasing mental health issues. This exact issue was the topic of a recent NPR article. The article explores the validity of this theory in explaining the rise in youth mental health issues by comparing three different experts’ perspectives on the topic. 

The first is Jean Twenge, a San Deigo State University professor of psychology who is in the camp that increased screen time is associated with mental health issues: 

“At first, when I saw these trends in loneliness and unhappiness and depression starting to spike around 2011 or 2012, I really had no idea what could possibly be causing that. It was a real mystery,” she tells NPR. Then, she says, she took note of Pew research that showed 2012 was the first year that most cell phone owners had switched to smartphones. 

Not only do these two trend lines seem to coincide in time, but Twenge also notes that young people who report spending the most time on smartphones — five to seven hours a day — are twice as likely to report being depressed as those who use their phones for one to two hours a day.

The second is Amy Orben and her team of researchers from Oxford University, who isn’t quite as confident of the connection: 

One team has published three papers that analyzed the same data Twenge is looking at — over 350,000 participants in three nationwide surveys in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. 

Amy Orben, the lead author of each paper and a psychologist at Oxford University, says the team found that the actual negative relationship between teens’ mental health and technology use is tiny.

“A teenagers’ technology use can only explain less than 1% of variation in well-being,” Orben says. “It’s so small that it’s surpassed by whether a teenager wears glasses to school,” or rides a bicycle, or eats potatoes — all comparisons made by Orben and her Oxford co-author Andrew K. Przybylski.

The third is Katherine Keyes, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who is also skeptical of the theory: 

She too is a critic of Twenge’s work, saying it has a tendency to “skew the data” by zooming in on screen use to the exclusion of other factors in the lives of adolescents.

And, she says, there are lots of numbers that don’t necessarily fit Twenge’s theory. The uptick in suicides started in 1999. The downturn in teen mental health started in 2005. The iPhone was introduced in 2007 and wasn’t accessible to most teenagers for several years.

Not all the news is bad when it comes to teens. High school graduation rates are up, for example. Drug and alcohol use is down, as are car crashes and teen pregnancy.

Adolescent mental health isn’t in “free-fall,” says Keyes, but seems to have leveled off since a dip in 2012.

It is complicated to model an actual effect of increasing screen time leading to an increase in mental health issues among young folks around the country. However, where I come down in the debate is more with Ms. Twenge. As I stated in my original column, this is a theory I believe to be accurate based on some research and some personal observations. Viewing this phenomenon in the lense of social capital, I think it makes sense. As screen time increases, there is less time for human interaction. This decreased human interaction, substituted for screen time, I believe it can affect one’s well-being to the point where mental health issues would arise. Human contact, the feeling of belonging, and societal trust are important factors in one’s health. 

As more research is done, this will be a highly debated topic of how much screen time is too much. However, it begs the question of the role of screen time on the nation’s mental health as more and more young people are showing signs of mental health issues. 

Jordan Roberts / Health Policy Analyst

Jordan joined the Locke Foundation in the summer of 2018 as Health Care Policy Analyst. He analyzes state and national health policy issues with an eye toward removing governm...

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