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Your kid’s phone probably isn’t causing depression

January 20, 2020
kids using phones
kids using phonesTim Gouw | Unsplash

The news: Two psychology professors have examined about 40 studies that investigate how the use of smartphones is related to depression and anxiety among teenagers. The conclusion? Any link is small, and it’s not clear whether it’s causal.

Mixed messages: The paper, written by Candice Odgers and Michaeline Jensen of the University of North Carolina, says that research to date has generated a mix of often conflicting associations between smartphone and social-media use and mental health issues. The most recent and rigorous studies don’t offer a way to distinguish cause and effect, they conclude, and are unlikely to be of clinical or practical significance.

Not alone: The article was published just a few weeks after a paper by Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge. She combed through over 80 systematic reviews and meta-analyses on this topic, and found a similar result: a small negative link between digital technology use and well-being, with the cause and effect unclear. An upcoming study from Jeff Hancock, the founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab, reached similar conclusions, according to the New York Times.

The significance: These papers suggest that the panic over teens and screen time may have been overblown. Although it’s important for our well-being that we include exercise and face-to-face social activities in our daily lives, the screen itself may may not live up to its bogeyman status.

What next? The entire field needs to rethink how it conducts its research. Orben has some advice. It needs to focus on “improving transparency, interpreting effect sizes and changing measurement” and “show a greater appreciation for the individual differences that will inherently shape each adolescent’s reaction to digital technologies,” she wrote.

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