It's a commonly held belief that excessive use of technology and social media by adolescents may be negatively impacting them, especially in an era where most youngsters have access to devices such as smartphones.
However, research looking at teenage tech usage and its association with mental health issues has not provided any conclusive answers yet.
Now, a new study by researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute says it is not all bad news – and evidence that links tech and social media usage to mental health ailments in teenagers is "thin – at best."
Their study published in Clinical Psychological Science assessed more than 400,000 teenagers in the UK and US in three different self-reported surveys, and found no conclusive link between tech usage and mental health problems.
In the study, spanning numerous years, the 430,561 teenagers – aged between 10-15 years old – reported their personal technology usages such as TV viewing, device usage, and social media usage, alongside any associated mental health problems.
The findings showed a small reduction in the association between TV viewing and social media usage with mental health problems in teenagers – however, it also showed a small increase in the association between social media usage and emotional problems, which is something that requires further investigation.
"We did find some limited associations between social media use and emotional problems, for instance," Dr Matti Vuorre, author of the study, stated in a press release. "But it is hard to know why they are associated. It could be a number of factors [perhaps people with problems spend more time on social media seeking peer support?"
"Furthermore, there was very little evidence to suggest those associations have increased over time."
The authors do stress that this does not mean the technology is all good for teenagers. The study relied on self-reporting, and it only looked at associations, not causative factors.
"These results don’t mean that technology is all good for teens, or all bad, or getting worse for teenagers or not. Even with some of the larger data sets available to scientists, it is difficult conclusively to determine the roles of technologies in young people’s lives, and how their impacts might change over time." Dr Vuorre says. "Scientists are working hard on these questions, but their work is made more difficult by the fact that most of the data collected on online behaviours remains hidden in technology companies’ data warehouses."
A study last year had shown that addictive smartphone behavior could lead to structural changes in the brain, as well as the fact that constant usage of devices may be making us increasingly distracted and hyperactive. More research will need to be done to ascertain the true influence of tech usage and the associated health outcomes in teenagers and adults.
"We need more transparent research collaborations between independent researchers and technology companies. Before we do, we are generally in the dark." Dr Vuorre concluded.