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New Data on Tech Use and Mental Health: Trends Over Time

Are associations between tech use and mental health problems increasing?

Key points

  • Many people are concerned about the potential effects of new technologies on mental health. It has always been thus.
  • The associations between technology use and mental health are weak, and the direction of effects is unclear.
  • Simplistic generalizations about the technology-mental health link (“digital tech is ruining our children”) are misguided.
  • The argument that new digital technologies are increasingly harmful for adolescent mental health is not supported by evidence.

It is a seeming human paradox that novel stimuli attract us, yet also foster suspicion and dread. A play of curiosity and fear—approach and withdrawal--characterizes our commerce with the environment. Infants exhibit stable temperamental tendencies toward approach or withdrawal regarding new stimuli. You can see that theme playing out later in people’s characteristic personalities—the thrill-seekers and experimenters vs. the cautious wallflowers.

The tension between these tendencies is a feature of our mental architecture. We are mesmerized by the new tech capabilities for engagement and entertainment while at the same time worrying about their effects on our health. We leap into new exciting innovation only to later lament the lost "good old days."

One complicating factor in our way of dealing with novel change is that some changes, once made, are difficult to reverse, even if we recognize in time that the new way is not better. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can’t push it back in. If cars were invented today, they wouldn't run on fossil fuel.

Moreover, the effects of technological (and other) innovations are unlikely to be fixed, and may shift over time as the technologies themselves change and as their impact expands. Some innovations (like the Segway) work well in the short term and then fizzle. Others (like the TV show "Seinfeld") are late bloomers, taking years to catch on.

In the mental health field, the side effects of new medications may peak early and then wane, while the therapeutic effects may emerge in full only after months of use. Some therapies show great effectiveness early, only to decline as less committed and enthusiastic practitioners take them up, or as measures of their efficacy become more precise.

Is Technology Bad for Our Mental Health?

New tech, like a new lover, may have both pros and cons, and it’s not easy to decide which carries the day. Your new lover is nice, yet broke. Do you commit? The good/bad calculus for new innovations is therefore often unclear. We regret losing the navigation skills of our ancestors, yet we gladly rely on Google Maps.

The recent rapid growth of digital consumer tech and social media has raised the predictable chorus of excitements and lamentations. The new technologies offer unprecedented access to knowledge and skill-building, and the ability to connect with people far and wide; they offer convenience, efficiency, and fun opportunities of incredible diversity and reach.

At the same time, concerns have emerged about the power new tech may hold over people’s minds—particularly young people—and its attendant effects on mental health. Is the new tech supplanting parenting and intimacy, twisting young brains, subverting tried and true ways of being, and demoralizing the young?

These concerns are but the latest incarnation of a reliably repetitive historical pattern. The worry contents change, but the worry process remains the same.

University of Oxford researcher Matti Vuorre and colleagues note: “The early 20th century saw dime novels blamed for eliciting mania and risk-taking… A generation later, the immersive nature of radio dramas was thought to make young listeners vulnerable to ill health, sleep loss, and anxiety… These concerns were largely forgotten by midcentury, when… comic books and television were implicated as factors predisposing adolescents to maladjustment and antisocial behavior… Most recently, video games were suggested to have produced a generation of violent criminals.”

In fact, I’ve experienced a unique variation of this process firsthand. I grew up on an Israeli kibbutz—a small collectivist agricultural community. The kibbutz was based on values of equality and egalitarianism. Properties (land, housing) and services (laundry; transportation) were communally owned and operated. Meals were taken in a communal dining room, together. Children were raised together in “children’s houses”; profits from the members’ labor were pooled and shared equally between them.

andrelyra for Pixabay
Source: andrelyra for Pixabay

A staple of kibbutz life was the periodic kerfuffle over how to incorporate new consumer technologies into the communal system. In the early days, the pioneers argued bitterly over whether to allow personal teakettles in members’ rooms.

The fear was that such private luxuries would detract from communal motivation and activity. The same debate occurred years later as radios were introduced, and again later with regard to TVs, and then cars. Technology always won. Yet these gains in private comfort came at the cost of fraying communal bonds, and, ultimately, the collapse of the group’s revolutionary equality and community ideals.

The examples above make clear a feature of our way with innovation—its “crisis of the day” nature, whereby a new innovation always emerges to distract us from the previous one, leaving our understanding of each incomplete. To understand the true effects of technology, it is therefore wise to analyze not just the effects at one point in time, but the effects over time.

How Technology Affects Us Over Time

A recent (2021) study by Matti Vuorre of Oxford and colleagues sought to accomplish just that. The researchers focused on two issues: the relationship between mental health and television use (an older technology we no longer fret much about), and the relationship between mental health and social media and digital devices (newer technologies generating much worry).

Their study analyzed data collected between 1991-2017 from over 430,000 participants in three large, nationally representative samples of adolescents (10-15 years old) living in the United States and the United Kingdom. Specifically, the researchers examined the links between tech use and four mental health outcome variables: Conduct problems, depression, emotional problems, and suicidal ideation and behavior.

The authors first calculated correlations between tech use and mental health outcomes separately for each year. Results showed that conduct and emotional problems were positively correlated with both TV and social media use. Depression was largely independent of both. Suicidal ideation and behavior were associated with digital-device use only.

However, “the magnitudes of these relations were within the ranges of previous findings… and are generally considered to be very small.” In other words, the magnitude of effects was unlikely to manifest in noticeable behavioral changes. No gender differences were detected.

The researchers then looked at trends over time in the strength of associations between tech use and mental health outcomes. They found “no consistent change over time in technology’s relations with mental health. Technology associations with conduct problems and suicidality were relatively stable over time. Social media’s relations with emotional problems had slightly increased, but television’s had not… both social media’s and television’s associations with depression had decreased. The magnitudes of the observed changes over time were small.”

They conclude: “Overall, the ideas that technologies people no longer worry about are becoming less harmful or that technologies people worry the most about now are becoming more harmful were not supported in the data we analyzed.”

The study, as all studies, contains limitations. For one, the study’s between-persons design (unlike longitudinal within-persons data) precluded making causal inferences. In other words, we can’t tell from these data whether tech use affects mental health or whether mental health drives tech use. Second, the newness of social media technology limits our ability to draw firm conclusions about it, as some (positive or negative) effects may not manifest until far into the future. Third, this study relied on self-report (rather than observational) data. People’s self-reports on their own state of mind are notoriously susceptible to various inaccuracies.

The researchers acknowledge these limitations. They conclude cautiously: “The argument that fast-paced changes to social media platforms and devices have made them more harmful for adolescent mental health in the past decade is… not strongly supported by current data.”

More work is of course needed, but this study illustrates that simplistically intuitive yet crude assumptions about the technology-mental health link (“digital tech is ruining our children”; “more tech exposure equals worse outcomes”) are misguided. Instead, we must formulate a nuanced approach to the study of tech effects on mental health and appreciate that to the extent they exist, these effects (positive or negative) are likely to depend heavily on the interplay between user characteristics, specific technology parameters, type of outcome considered, and the socio-cultural context. As is the case across the board when it comes to the factors that shape mental health, one size never fits all.

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