Digital Detox 2: Current State of Research

Digital Detox 2: Current State of Research

As clinicians, we are extremely passionate about the complex world of screen media activity. Previously, we introduced the topic of screen time in order to provide answers to the digital questions we are asked often by parents in sessions. Today, we continue our discussion of this multi-part series investigating the current state of research and media related to screen time and mental health.

Searching the key term “screen time” in Google News generates over 315,000 results. While scanning through the first few pages of these results, I encountered a host of contradicting headlines. For example, a headline entitled “Less screen time means healthier kids” is published alongside a contrasting article entitled, “Study finds screen time not as bad for kids as we thought.” As I continued to scroll through backdated posts, I found myself in a messy web of news articles that consistently opposed one another. The contradiction lies in the causal relationship between increased screen time and mental health.

A wise Communications professor once shared with our class the statement, “if it scares, it gets shared.” Thus, media places value on content that strikes a chord with their consumers. It seems natural that the ubiquitous experience of screen time is constantly reported on and shared since screens have become everyone’s constant companions. In an effort to clear up the inconsistent data that the media reports on screen time, I quickly changed my search settings to Google Scholar.

Conversely, Google Scholar populates over 4,580,000 results when “screen time” is searched. The research articles that populate relate to a variety of concerns: physicality, attachment styles, addiction, and metabolic and mental health risks. For the purposes of this blog post, I narrowed my search terms to include the key term “mental health.” Much to my disappointment, I was met yet again with contending research articles that lacked credible causality between mental health and screen time. After scrolling through backdated articles, it became clear. Scientists, like media outlets, share a similar lack of consistency across their reports. This general uncertain consensus was further confirmed by Anthony Wagner, chair of the department of psychology at Stanford University. He asked the following questions “Is there anything that tells us there’s a causal link? That our media use behavior is actually altering our cognition and underlying neurological function or neurobiological processes?” He gave a simple answer: “we have no idea since there is data.” and concluded his statements explaining that just like the media, “literature is a wreck.”*

One thing research is clear about is the current state of youth’s mental health. Specifically, recent studies have found that between 2009 and 2017, the number of high school students who contemplated suicide increased by 25 percent.** Furthermore, the number of teens diagnosed with clinical depression grew 37 percent between 2005 and 2014.*** After reading these statistics, it only seems fair to ask the question, could there be a causal relationship between the increased use of screen time and youth mental health due to the ubiquity and influence of digital devices? Large surveys of youth argue that “adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices) were more likely to report mental health issues.” **** Conversely, “adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services) were less likely.” ****

Thus, it seems that there are “negative, statistically significant associations between screen use and certain measures of well-being, including depressive symptoms.” * However, it is important to review the nuances behind these reports. For example, correlation doesn't imply causality and the statistically significant results that were found, yielded small results. Further, the categorization of screen time is limited; screen time should not be grouped together. Screen time is unique to the medium that the individual is interacting with it. For example, scrolling through curated Instagram content is much different than playing Fortnight with your friends on a video console.

Furthermore, the aforementioned outcomes that were measured in the previously described studies - depressive symptoms and suicidality – are two distinct outcome measures of many. Outcomes could also look at memory, attention and other facets of mental health. For example, other agencies and researchers emphasized screen times effects on addiction (i.e. gaming disorder as labeled by the World Health Organization) and working memory (i.e. media usage diminishes memory for experiences)******. Lastly, the measures of depressive symptoms and suicidality in the previous studies were not clinical diagnoses; instead, these measures were self-reported answers to a variety of questions. Some of these questions simply implied depressive tendencies or features of suicidality instead of the actual clinical diagnosis or behavior. Overall, these nuances are examples as to why research on screen time is so fractured.

Personally, I also ask myself nuanced questions that do not relate to the specific study. For example, could it be that youth are more willing to admit that they’re struggling in today’s society as we continue to open up conversations surrounding mental health? Has the stigma on this topic lessened from previous generations? Or could it be that technology platforms give rise to a new “space” where individuals can connect and freely share their mental health experiences with others? It is evident that a variety of variables need to be measured when assessing the impact of screen time on mental health.

As technology continues to innovate, it is essential for research studies to evolve at the same pace. However, keeping up with the changes in technology and the rise of digital media is extremely difficult. For example, amending a study to include a new device or a new technological platform can be unethical and constraining thereby leading to bias results. Thus, the future of screen time research needs to find new ways to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of the digital experiment we are currently living in.

In order to anticipate innovation, Dillon Browne, co-author of the Jama Pediatrics Study, and Florence Breslin, co-author of “Screen media activity and brain structure in youth: Evidence for diverse structural correlation networks from the ABCD study” describes a form of data collection that is pivotal to the rapidly changing environment of technology and its influence on mental health. These two independent authors suggest collecting data from their key targets. This form of data collection would help quantify and qualify kid’s screen usage, both passively and in real-time. Usage and content awareness could reveal trends, habits and patterns including but not limited to youth's screen time usage, media habits, and how these habits influence development. Breslin argues that questions such as, "Is their behavior changing?” and “Is it changing from video gaming to social networking to news?” could be answered!

Currently, researchers, like Breslin, are asking key stakeholders in data fields, such as Apple and Google, to work with their studies to provide data that could help answer the big question related to screen time usage and mental health. However, this desire to gain data is no easy feat! Changes to consent, legislation and social understanding would need to take place. These studies will take years to complete, so we’ll have to be patient as we await results. In the meantime, scholars suggest to the public what we as clinicians suggest to curious parents who ask us digital questions about screen time consumption: “Don’t wait on us to tell you what the right amount of time is, you have to find what the right in your family is!”*****

We intend to keep up with the current state of research and quickly evolving pace of technology, all while living in this on-going digital experiment, in order to provide answers to the digital questions. We will review screen time effects per platform on our next Digital Detox blog post. Stay tuned.

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