It’s time for a serious rethink about teen mental health and digital media, an important report urges – because “most adolescents using technology do so in ways that do not lead to increased risk of negative health consequences,” write the authors of “Adolescent Digital Technology & Media Use,” led by Megan Moreno, MD, at the University of Wisconsin.
“Most” is a key word, there, because the nationally representative survey of nearly 4,000 US 13-to-18-year-olds and their parents (almost 8,000 total respondents) turned up two distinct groups or “classes” of teen digital media users – “family-engaged adolescents,” representing almost two-thirds of the teens surveyed, and “at-risk adolescents,” representing about a third – and the latter needs more attention, the authors tell us.
Help where it’s needed
“We feel it’s time to shift the conversation to focus on the smaller group of vulnerable youth and their families, who are clearly struggling,” writes one of the study’s authors Yalda Uhls, PhD, at UCLA in Psychology Today. Because the larger, “family-engaged,” group “seemed to be doing just fine, with positive health and well-being indicators in relationship to technology,” she adds.
The authors reached that conclusion by looking at a number of factors in their survey: who in the house owned digital devices (the teen or the family), the frequency of social media use (by both kids and parents), levels of communication and empathy, teens’ health (including sleep, exercise, etc.) and mental health, parent engagement in child tech use, whether there were household media rules, etc.
“Class 1 participants were more likely than Class 2 participants to report family-owned devices, have lower technology importance scores, have household technology rules often centered on content, have positive parent relationships and lower parent social media use, and report better health outcomes and well-being indicators,” according to the report. [To see the five main characteristics of each group, see the pink and blue graphic in the middle of this page.]
Also less sleep-deprived
In terms of physical health, interestingly, while Class 1 youth “reported lower levels of physical activity” than Class 2, the former “also reported lower rates of PIU [problematic Internet use], sleep impairment, depression, anxiety, FOMO, and poor body image compared with Class 2 participants.”
All this lines up with other important work on adolescent health. “Our study is aligned with previous literature, such as the finding that adolescents who struggle in one domain, such as addictive technology behavior, often have lower health behaviors in other areas, such as psychosocial issues, and concerning health outcomes, such as sleep impairment.”
Ok, so some parents may be asking, “What can we do to be sure we’re in ‘Class 1’ – the group that’s probably ‘just fine’?” What’s great is, it’s not hard, people. Many, many parents are already doing these things, so their kids probably already are fine for the most part. To see what I mean, see these tips for parents and these tips for tech companies in the report.
Here are my own top takeaways:
Not just negative. The authors write that not only the news media but academia too has focused too much on tech’s risks. About the former they write, “News stories often frame technology as something that should be reduced or avoided, which could influence a view of technology as a risk behavior itself.” About the latter: “Many studies on adolescent technology use have focused on risks and negative outcomes. To better understand adolescent digital technology use, we need [to] take a balanced approach to understanding the risks and benefits of digital technology use,” the authors write.
Not all equally at risk or fine. An important point the report made was one that surfaced in the report of a national task force I served on way back in 2008 (it was good to see it reinforced): that young media users are not an undifferentiated collective and not all equally at risk online. In fact, it’s the kids most at risk offline who tend to be the ones most at risk or vulnerable online.
Include teens in rule-making. Rules are good, but they need to focus on content not screen time, come with plenty of communication and include kids in the discussion and selection of rules. That last one is “a critical tactic to obtaining [kids’] buy-in for setting limits and boundaries.” [You may be interested to know this – sometimes characterized as “nothing about them without them” – is the spirit of Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.]
Parents are important. You have a lot of influence in your child’s wellbeing, including the digital parts – and, as we’ve heard for generations, now too, your actions more than words. “We propose that a critical factor that affected Family-Engaged Adolescents’ health and well-being was the role of parents…. [Teens] in this group … were more likely to communicate with their parents about their technology use and, overall, they reported a positive relationship with their parents compared with the At-Risk Adolescents. Furthermore, Class 1 parents used social media less frequently compared with Class 2 parents, highlighting the integral aspect of role modeling that parents have regarding technology use.” For more reasons why we’re important see this about research from the Cyberbullying Research Center.
Ours not yours. Families with kids in the first cohort that had the healthier relationship with tech and better communication with parents tended to treat digital devices as family-owned not kids’ own personal property.
Media rules are good, but their focus needs to move away from time (“screen time”) to content (what’s on the screen), as well as communication and co-viewing, per the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the authors write, which syncs with the idea of parents and kids as learning partners described here.
The level of good or not good in young people’s experience with digital media is always individual and contextual (based on what’s happening at home, school and in their social groups) and often situational (what’s happening in a particular moment). That’s why it’s so important for parents to work from the inside out – from the child’s own experience – not the headlines in. How beautiful that, even as it looked at a huge cohort of almost 4,000 pairs of kids and parents, this study reiterated the importance of focusing on our own kids more than on what others (often thoughtlessly) say about all kids.
- What gives this research group – the Social Media & Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT) at University of Wisconsin – so much credibility from my perspective is its ongoing, year-round access to young people’s own experiences with tech and media through its several youth advisory boards, the first two serving year-round: the 14-member TAM Youth Advisory Board of middle and high school students across the US (TAM for Technology and Adolescent Mental Wellness), the 5-member SMAHRT Youth Advisory Board of five high school students and the eight-week Summer Research Scholars program for students in grades 9-12.
- The main study page in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (lead author Dr. Megan Moreno is SMAHRT’s principal investigator) and the press release from the Center for Scholars and Storytellers at University of California, Los Angeles
- The authors’ tips for the tech industry
- The authors’ tips for parents on how they “can support the well-being of youth around digital technology and media”
- A video conversation between two of the study’s authors, Dr. Moreno and Dr. Uhls
- The piece about the study in Psycholology Today