SAN FRANCISCO • It has become common wisdom that too much time spent on smartphones and social media is responsible for a recent spike in anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, especially among teenagers.
But a growing number of academic researchers have produced studies that suggest the common wisdom is wrong.
The latest research, published by two psychology professors, combs through about 40 studies that have examined the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety among adolescents.
That link, according to the professors, is small and inconsistent.
“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Dr Candice Odgers, a professor at University of California, Irvine, and lead author of the paper published in the Journal Of Child Psychology And Psychiatry.
Worries about smartphones have led American politicians to pass legislation to examine the impact of heavy smartphone use.
The World Health Organisation said last year that infants under a year old should not be exposed to electronic screens and that children between two and four should not have more than an hour of “sedentary screen time” each day.
But some researchers question whether those fears are justified.
They are not arguing that intensive use of phones does not matter.
Children who are on their phones too much can miss out on other valuable activities, like exercise. And research has shown that excessive phone use can exacerbate the problems of certain vulnerable groups, like children with mental health issues.
They are, however, challenging the widespread belief that screens are responsible for broad societal problems like the rising rates of anxiety and sleep deprivation among teenagers.
In most cases, they say, the phone is just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone.
The researchers worry that the focus on keeping children away from screens is making it hard to have more productive conversations about topics like how to protect the privacy of teenagers who share their lives online.
“Many of the people who are terrifying kids about screens, they have hit a vein of attention from society and are going to ride that. But that is super bad for society,” said Mr Andrew Przybylski, director of research at Oxford Internet Institute.
The new article by Dr Odgers and Dr Michaeline Jensen, of University of North Carolina at Greensboro, comes just a few weeks after the publication of an analysis by Dr Amy Orben, a researcher at University of Cambridge, and shortly before a planned publication of similar work from Mr Jeff Hancock, founder of Stanford Social Media Lab.
Both reached similar conclusions.
The debate about screen time and mental health goes back to the early days of the iPhone. In 2011, the American Academy of Paediatrics published a paper that warned doctors about “Facebook depression”.
Concern about the connection between smartphones and mental health has also been fed by high-profile works like a 2017 article in The Atlantic – and a related book – by psychologist Jean Twenge, who argued that a recent rise in suicide and depression among teenagers was linked to the arrival of smartphones.
Her critics argue that her work found a correlation between the appearance of smartphones and a rise in reports of mental health issues, but that it did not establish that phones were the cause.
It could, researchers argue, just as easily be that the rise in depression led teenagers to excessive phone use at a time when there were many other potential explanations for depression and anxiety. What is more, anxiety and suicide rates appear not to have risen in large parts of Europe, where phones have also become more prevalent.
“Why else might American kids be anxious other than telephones?” Mr Hancock said.
“How about climate change? How about income inequality? How about more student debt? There are so many big giant structural issues that have a huge impact on us, but are invisible and that we aren’t looking at.”