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No One-Size-Fits-All Formula for Healthy Screen Time

Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

How much screen time is too much? It’s a pressing question for many parents of young children and teens, who have been inundated with warnings about the negative effects of digital technology use on mental health. But new research suggests the story is not as clear – or as dire – as many think.

Social media researcher Amy Orben of Oxford University says she often feels like she lives in two completely different worlds.

“I live in the world where I listen to the radio, and I watch TV, and I read the newspaper, and talk to other people in the street. And people are really concerned about social media,” Orben said. “On the other side, I live in the world where I work with these data on a daily basis, and I keep on finding that the effects aren't as severely negative as we would definitely expect it to be from the amount a public conversation we're having.”

But Orben says all the concern isn’t necessarily backed up by data. In fact, the research to date has been very contradictory. And that has added to parents’ and policymakers’ dilemma.

“On one day, you might read something that screen time is really, inherently bad and catastrophic for teen mental health,” said Orben. “On the other day you might read or listen to something that says it’s actually not that bad, or it's actually positive.”

Orben suspected that all the conflicting conclusions were, in part, a symptom of a much larger problem in psychology research, often called the replication crisis. How researchers analyze a dataset can change the results they get.

To avoid being one more biased analysis, Orben and her colleagues simulated many ways of analyzing three large, publicly available datasets – asking lots of different questions in different ways.

What they found is that digital technology use was associated with lower well-being among teens, but that the effect was not catastrophic. In fact, it was extremely small. At most, it explained just 0.4% of differences in well-being. Other factors, like adequate sleep, a supportive home life, or bullying, were much more influential.

Orben says she thinks about digital technology like sugar. Too much is a bad thing, but “too much” is dramatically different for a diabetic than for an ultra-marathon runner. And there are different types of sugar and different ways in which it might be consumed.

“Screen time is diverse, and children are diverse,” Orben said. “We should empower parents to do what parents do best, and that is to weigh the pros and cons, depending specifically on their child, with their child at the heart of the decision-making.”

Orben acknowledges this puts a lot of weight on parents, but says that – right now – we just don’t have the evidence to responsibly give parents a one-size-fits-all formula for a healthy digital childhood.

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Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.