Teens, Technology and Mental Health
A report published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and The Prince’s Trust in Britain in January 2021 made headlines around the world. The media focused on the study’s finding that heavy use of social media had a negative effect on the mental health of British teenagers. At a time when teenagers around the world, and particularly in the UK, were spending more time than ever on their devices because of lockdowns, the news was particularly unwelcome. The EPI report was broad and investigated many things affecting teenage wellbeing in England at ages 11, 14 and 17, but the finding that interested the media the most was that, “Heavy social media use is shown to negatively affect wellbeing and self-esteem in adolescence, regardless of young people’s existing state of mental health”.
However, closer to home, a study in 2019 by the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology found only a weak link between the use of social media platforms and psychological well-being. It found that the effect on mental health of using social media platforms was equivalent to that of playing computer games, watching TV or even babysitting. Not so alarming. Nonetheless, it did say that very excessive users of social media were slightly more negatively affected than other frequent users. The head of the study pointed out that people would need to spend a “ridiculous, if not impossible” amount of time on social media to experience a significant negative effect.
Technology and teen mental health
Every teen is different and uses technology in different ways. The outcome of their use of devices can be as different as the teenagers themselves. In the EPI study, even the authors were quick to point out that “participants in our focus group studies did highlight both the positive and negative aspects of social media in relation to their mental and emotional health”. Even though one overall finding from the study was a correlation between heavy social media use and poor mental health, the researchers also found positive effects that the media failed to acknowledge. One participant in the study said themselves: “At the same time, it’s how you use it and what you choose to see”.
During lockdowns around the world, social media has been a lifeline for many people living alone, as well as for many young people. Technology in general has allowed people to keep in touch with friends and classmates or take part in activities online, like gym or playing video games. During lockdowns, technology allowed sports fans to watch their favourite teams play, some even added virtual crowd noise to make fans feel like they were really there. The Internet is many things – both good and bad – and technology can be used in a variety of ways from building atomic bombs to electric cars and prosthetic limbs. So, it’s better to decide whether activities online or on social media are healthy for a teen on an individual basis. And don’t forget that some things can be fun for one person and destructive for another. Like most things in life, if social media use is excessive to the point of becoming an addiction it will be a source of distress. Take the example of playing online casino games like online pokies, which some people enjoy for fun, but can cause other people considerable distress when their spending is out of control. The question of moderation is important.
Keeping an eye on the teenager in your life
The question of whether social media is good or bad for teen health is intrinsically linked to what those particular teens are doing on social media and how their life is in general. Someone who has trouble fitting in at school or lacks support at home might find solace chatting with a like-minded group of people using social media, but another may experience bullying. Since social media is used in such diverse ways, it is really just a mirror of the real world. Perhaps we need to spend more time on the questions that really count: Does this particular teenager seem better or worse after spending a long time using social media, or some other type of technology i.e. playing video games? What are they doing while they’re online? How is it affecting them emotionally? Are they doing things they shouldn’t be online, like playing online casino when they are underage? (Rest assured that JPC is dedicated to making sure no underaged person will play in our online casino.)
The problem with studies: for parents
The problem with studies is that they look for overall trends and ignore individual differences. From a parents’ perspective, studies of this kind can be unhelpful, since they’re really designed for legislators who need rules they can apply to the general population. The problem is confounded by the fact that for every study seems to be contradicted by another study. This leaves parents feeling confused. For example, there is another recent Oxford study that found video games had a positive correlation with well-being, and a UNICEF report from 2017 by the University of Oxford that examined 120,000 British 15-year-olds found that time spent using technology was linked to improved well-being. The moral of the story, is don’t get too caught up on a specific amounts of “screen” time, or trends in the general population when it comes to your teen. If technology is part of their leisure time and they seem happy and healthy you can cut them a little slack. As long as they’ve already done their homework of course.