Confused about all that you’re hearing about the impacts of digital media and tech on young people? A just-published paper should clear that confusion up, reports Scientific American.
Drawing from data on more than 350,000 teens, the paper, “show[s] persuasively that…technology use has a nearly negligible effect on adolescent psychological well-being.” Its authors, Oxford University researchers Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski, took a whole range of wellbeing-related questions to that data – “depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, pro-social behavior, peer-relationship problems and the like” – and found that “technology use tilts the needle less than half a percent away from feeling emotionally sound,” writes ScientificAmerican.com reporter Lydia Denworth. “For context, eating potatoes is associated with nearly the same degree of effect and wearing glasses has a more negative impact on adolescent mental health.”
I’d seen coverage of the paper, just published in the journal Nature, tweeted by a number of researchers but was linked to this Scientific American report by social science professor David Finkelhor at University of New Hampshire. He was responding to a question I’d put to researchers in a discussion group because I wanted to check with them on a statement about young people’s use of technology made by computer science professor Cal Newport in an otherwise thoughtful podcast by journalist Ezra Klein.
Had I read the research wrong?
Was I crazy? My understanding of the research was that there’s so much we don’t know yet, and there’s certainly nothing definitive on the negative impacts of digital media on youth, yet I was hearing Dr. Newport saying that the research shows social media causes loneliness in teens and referring to “a 19-year-old who never leaves his room,” but thinks he’s socializing because he’s using social media…as descriptive of teen socializing in the digital age.
Well, it’s not. First, researchers say it’s not – see the above paper. Second, as probably everybody who knows, loves and works with teenagers will tell you, “social” for most teens is first and foremost a “real life” thing. Media plays a supporting role to that. Social media, including videogames, is about their friends, not about technology. Third, as Denworth reports, “effects really do depend on the user.” It’s individual. Certainly there are young people struggling with social disorders who feel more comfortable keeping things online and not leaving their room, but very, very few. If they do, technology is not likely the main problem.
But it was a great podcast, otherwise. I appreciated Newport’s definition of “solitude” as freedom from the outputs of other minds, which I think deepens the conversation. In the podcast and probably in his new book Digital Minimalism, Newport talks about giving ourselves time for reflection – a chance to process all that we’re taking in. And helping our children value that. Yes, absolutely, we want to help them think critically about the tech and media they use, and it goes even deeper than that to helping them think about what they value.
I like that Newport uses the term “digital de-cluttering,” rather than “de-toxing.” De-cluttering is not just critical thinking. It’s not, or shouldn’t be merely transactional – what do I gain if I delete this, etc. – but rather transformational. We can make it a self-reflection, or even self-knowledge, tool – a way to get a better handle on what we value most and what analog and digital activities serve that. “What is the best way to use technology to support this value?” is the question Newport suggests we ask. A good question for personal inquiry and family discussion, right?
- “We’re all looking in the wrong direction. The real threat isn’t smartphones. It’s this campaign of misinformation and the generation of fear among parents and educators,” Scientific American quoted Candice Odgers, a researcher in adolescent health and technology at University of California, Irvine, as saying. I just wanted to highlight that quote from the very end of the article. Here’s Odgers’s 2015 paper referred to in the article: “Seven fears and the science of how mobile technologies may be influencing adolescents in the digital age”
- “Screens might be as bad for mental health as…potatoes” – Wired’s coverage of the paper, and…
- Here again is this groundbreaking paper by Orben and Przybylski: “The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use” at Nature.com
- About Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism