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Have the Hazards and Harms of Screen Time Been Overblown?

Self-reported screen time guesstimates skew "digital media use" research data.

Key points

  • Over the past decade, numerous studies have suggested that excessive screen time or so-called "problematic" digital media use may be harmful.
  • A new meta-analysis of 47 studies finds discrepancies between self-reported guesstimates of screen time and actual time spent on digital devices.
  • The inaccurate self-report measures used for these studies may have resulted in over-inflated concerns about the harms of digital media use.
  • Another new study found no evidence that adolescents' digital technology engagement since the 1990s is linked to more mental health problems.
Rawpixel[dot]com/Shutterstock
Source: Rawpixel[dot]com/Shutterstock

Warnings about the dangers of so-called "problematic" digital media use or internet addiction may be ill-informed due to flawed research data, according to a recently published systematic review and meta-analysis of 47 studies by an international team.

This paper (Parry et al., 2021) was published on May 17 in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Human Behaviour. With the ongoing replication crisis, all materials needed to reproduce the findings of this pre-registered paper are available through the Open Science Framework.

Parry et al.'s objective was to investigate how closely subjective self-reported estimates of screen time usage matched non-self-reported logs that objectively tracked someone's actual digital media usage. After identifying and extracting 106 comparisons based on samples from 52,007 individuals, the researchers identified significant discrepancies between the exact amount of time people logged on various digital devices compared to their self-reported estimates.

Self-Reported Measures of Screen Time Are Often Unreliable Guesstimates

Less than 10% of self-reported data evaluated for this systematic review and meta-analysis was within 5% of the actual time spent using digital media. Taken together, the findings suggest that 95% of screen time studies inaccurately estimate usage.

"Self-reports of behavior are an index of what respondents believe that they do—their perceptions of their own behavior—and not necessarily what they actually do," Parry et al. explain. "The purpose of this meta-analysis, therefore, is to develop a deeper understanding of the convergent validity of self-report measures for digital media use."

Previous research into the reliability of self-reported data (Schwarz & Oyserman, 2001) suggests that the cognitive limitations of autobiographical memory make it very difficult for respondents to accurately self-report frequent and habitual daily behaviors that are repeated countless times throughout the day.

"The screen time discrepancies highlight that we simply do not know enough yet about the actual effects (both positive and negative) of our media use," first author Doug Parry of Stellenbosch University said in a news release. "Researchers, journalists, members of the public, and crucially policymakers need to question the quality of evidence when they consider research on media uses and effects. We can no longer simply take claims of harmful effects at face value."

"For decades, researchers have relied on estimates of how we use various technologies to study how people use digital media and the potential outcomes this behavior can lead to. Our findings suggest that much of this work may be on unstable footing," he added.

Other researchers involved in this systematic review and meta-analysis included Brit Davidson of the University of Bath School of Management, Craig Sewall from the University of Pittsburgh, Jacob Fisher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Stanford University's Hannah Mieczkowski, and the University of Oslo's Daniel Quintana.

"These highly flawed studies are over-inflating the relationships between digital media use and typically negative outcomes, such as mental health symptoms and cognitive impairments, which of course explains the pervading view that smartphones, among other technologies, are bad for us," Davidson said in the news release.

"Media and technology use takes the blame for everything from increases in teenage depression and suicide to a higher incidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and violence," she added. "If we want to investigate harms properly, we must first tackle assumptions about screen time and disentangle how people are actually using their phones or other technologies of interest."

Inaccurate Self-Reported Data May Have Over-Inflated Smartphone Risks

Some scholars have speculated that the invention and widespread use of 21st-century smartphones—which Apple Inc. first sold on June 29, 2007—may have "destroyed a generation." On the flip side, others (Orben, 2020) question the validity of these overblown concerns and postulate that parents throughout modern history have feared the consequences of new inventions on their children as part of "the Sisyphean cycle. Of technology panics."

In her recent (2020) paper, Amy Orben of Emmanual College at the University of Cambridge highlights "how the Sisyphean cycle of technology panics stymies psychology's positive role in steering technological change and the pervasive need for improved research and policy approaches to new technologies."

She also states, "To ensure that psychology does not become an accomplice to a never-ending Sisyphean cycle of technology panics, the research area has to acknowledge the need for radical change."

Relying less on self-reported data to measure digital media use could be one such radical change.

In terms of breaking the Sisyphean cycle of technology panics, another new study (Vuorre, Orben, & Przybylski, 2021) of 430,000 teenagers in the US and UK found that current digital technology engagement is no more harmful to the mental health of today's adolescents than watching TV was for young people during the 1990s. A team of researchers from Oxford University published these findings on May 3 in the peer-reviewed journal Clinical Psychological Science.

"If we want to understand the relationship between tech and well-being today, we need first to go back and look at historical data—as far back as when parents were concerned too much TV would give their kids square eyes—to bring the contemporary concerns we have about newer technologies into focus," first author Matti Vuorre, a postdoctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, said in a news release.

"As more data accumulates on adolescents' use of emerging technologies, our knowledge of them and their effects on mental health will become more precise," co-author Andy Przybylski added. "We need more transparent and credible collaborations between scientists and technology companies to unlock the answers. The data exists within the tech industry; scientists just need to be able to access it for a neutral and independent investigation."

"Although we found little evidence suggesting that technology is becoming more harmful over time, we note that data accrued by internet-based and social-media platforms are needed to examine these possibilities," Vuorre et al. conclude more rigorously. "It is our hope that transparent and robust science would emerge in collaboration with industry stakeholders to elucidate better the changing roles of technology in young people's lives."

References

Douglas A. Parry, Brittany I. Davidson, Craig J. R. Sewall, Jacob T. Fisher, Hannah Mieczkowski, Daniel S. Quintana. "A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Discrepancies Between Logged and Self-Reported Digital Media Use." Nature Human Behaviour (First published: May 17, 2021) DOI: 10.1038/s41562-021-01117-5

Matti Vuorre, Amy Orben, Andrew K. Przybylski. "There Is No Evidence That Associations Between Adolescents' Digital Technology Engagement and Mental Health Problems Have Increased." Clinical Psychological Science (First Published: May 03, 2021) DOI: 10.1177/2167702621994549

Amy Orben "The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics." Perspectives on Psychological Science (First published online: June 30, 2020) DOI: 10.1177/1745691620919372

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