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The pandemic is raising concerns about how teens use technology. But there’s still unknowns.

By Shirin Ghaffary - Vox

A new report from Common Sense Media analyzes current research on how social media impacts teens’ mental health.

As the US continues to struggle to contain the Covid-19 pandemic and social distancing recommendations remain in place, millions of US children and adolescents aren’t expected to attend school in-person in the fall — meaning they’ll often be stuck inside their homes and using the internet as a primary means of human connection. The situation has resurfaced a long-standing, difficult-to-answer question: Is technology going to ruin my teenager’s brain?

For years, some have blamed the growing rate of teenagers suffering from mental health issues in the US on the drastic increase in how much they’re engaging with digital devices compared to previous generations — but there isn’t much hard evidence to back up those claims.

It’s true that we’re seeing unprecedented levels of teenagers using digital devices — some 95 percent of US teens have access to a smartphone, and 45 percent say they are online “almost constantly,” according to a 2018 Pew poll. And during the same period of time that internet and smartphone use has increased for a generation of young people, the suicide rate in the US has also steadily increased (across all ages overall), with a disproportionate increase in the rate of tween girls aged 10 to 14 in particular.

But the rise of teenagers’ use of social media at the same time that depression rates have been going up shows correlation, not causation. Meaning, there’s no evidence to prove that teenagers’ use of social media is why we’re seeing this increase in depression instead of any number of other confounding factors — like their family life, economic conditions, or anything else. To know if that’s the case or not, we need a lot more comprehensive research that isolates these other factors.

Considering how high the stakes are, answering this question is important — and pressing.

A new report from the nonprofit Common Sense Media, a national advocacy group focused on digital access and safety for children and families, reflects the urgency and state of the conversation. The report, written by UC Irvine child psychology professor Candice Odgers and Common Sense research director Michael Robb, attempted to review the existing research about the effects of tech use on teens, draw conclusions about the overall risks and benefits, and suggest recommendations for parents, educators, and the public. But one of the biggest conclusions from Common Sense’s report is that the existing research doesn’t tell us enough, and we need more refined scientific evidence to know anything conclusive about the effects of social media on teenagers’ mental health.In the meantime, it’s important to understand what the concerns around the impact of social media on teenage mental health are — and what to consider when it comes to figuring out how to help teens have a balanced relationship with technology, especially while living through a pandemic.

The concern: “Our kids are walking around with slot machines in their pockets”

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, first partner to California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, who contributed an essay to the report, wrote that she understands digital devices like tablets and laptops are necessary tools for getting an education during Covid-19 school shutdowns. But she says she’s also worried about the effects of these devices on children and teens’ mental health.

“[A]s a mom, I can’t ignore the reality in my home. Distance learning for my four kids this spring opened the floodgates to media and its adverse effects. What started with using Zoom and Gmail for homework assignments became internet searches bringing up age-inappropriate information — and misinformation,” wrote Siebel Newsom. “All of a sudden my eldest were sneaking off to their rooms, or hiding devices under their beds at night.”

Both Siebel Newsom and others who contributed to the report, like former Democratic presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, want to see technology and media companies accept more responsibility for their impact on children, even if we don’t yet have research showing exactly what that impact is. Yang, in particular, called for the government to drastically fund more research and step in, if needed, to incentivize tech companies to educate children, rather than entertain them, to collect ad dollars. (The children’s digital advertising market is expected to be worth $1.7 billion by 2021, according to a report from PwC.)

“Right now, the interests of parents are directly at odds with the interests of the technology companies,” wrote Yang. “They’re monetizing our attention and profiting off of our time. As they say, the addictive nature of smartphones is a feature, not a bug. We parents are outgunned and at a total loss.”

Newsom’s and Yang’s comments draw on much larger anxieties in the American public about what kids are doing with their time online and how this will impact their development.

The evidence is inconclusive and more research is needed

So, while there’s no shortage of concern about how much time adolescents are spending on their phones, what does the research actually say?

Unfortunately, not enough for us to draw any quantitative, evidence-based conclusions — and that’s why we should start doing more research in earnest now. The report’s meta-analysis of the most up-to-date research on social media and depression revealed a mix of “small positive, negative, and mostly neutral” links between adolescents’ use of technology like social media and their mental health.

Authors of the report looked at two large-scale reviews of existing research on the topic published earlier this year and found results associating adolescents’ mental health and use of digital technology “inconsistent” — even when an association was present, it accounted for less than 1 percent of the variation.

This failure to find a stronger link between teen depression and technology use “is not surprising,” Odgers and Robb write, “given that mental health disorders emerge from a complex set of social, genetic, and experiential factors, which have varying influence across development and situations.” Still, “small effects can be meaningful,” the report states, “but with existing evidence we have no way to separate cause from effect in social media research with adolescents.”

If researchers wanted to actually separate cause from effect, we would need research that asks more specific questions and is backed by harder data, as my Vox colleague Brian Resnick has previously explained. Self-reported surveys on teens’ well-being can be biased — so another option would be for scientists to use brain scans showing neurological development over time to track the tangible effects of social media on children’s well-being.

While there is at least one large study like this underway, funded by the National Institutes of Health, it will be several years before we see its results. Until then, researchers are asking for more granular data from companies like Apple and Google to help them understand exactly how kids are using their devices. Are they bingeing on Fortnite or watching educational YouTube videos? So far, tech companies like Apple largely haven’t given researchers the option to see people’s screen-time data that shows how much they use different apps on their phones — even with their consent.

With all this in mind, the report calls for the government and other groups to fund more research on this topic.

Recommendations: Quality over quantity

While the jury’s still out on exactly how social media impacts teens, the report does offer some child psychologist-backed recommendations for teen tech use.

An important one: It’s not how much teens use apps that matters but how they’re using those apps. In essence, it’s quality over quantity. Examples of quality use include a teen using multiplayer video games to socialize with their peers and build stronger friendships, the report argues. Another example of positive tech use is when first-year college students use their smartphones to maintain close contact with their parents. One study cited in the report showed these students were better at bouncing back from outside stress than their peers who stayed in touch with their families less often.

The report stressed that while many families have instituted rules about how much their kids use technology, the fights parents are having with their children over this are actually making things worse. In fact, “conflict over screens is likely to be more harmful to adolescents’ mental health than screen time itself,” Common Sense’s report states.

While there’s a lot we still don’t know about technology and its impact on teens’ mental health, it’s an important issue that’s only become more serious during the pandemic. That’s why we need better research before jumping to any conclusions.

You can read the report in full here.

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