Sarah Rose Cavanagh Ph.D.

Once More, With Feeling

Screens, Teens, and Happiness: A Surprising Relationship

The thoughts I shared testifying before Washington State Congress.

Posted May 03, 2019

Last month, I had the honor of testifying before the Washington State House of Representatives' Human Services and Early Learning Committee on screens, teens, and mental health. 

Joining me on the panel were Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University; Monica Anderson, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center; and Dr. Larry Wissow of the Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine department at Seattle Children’s Hospital. 

What follows is a distillation of my ten-minute talk.

Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Fears about the internet destroying our minds and brains are nothing new. But with the advent of smartphones and social media, these concerns have reached a fever pitch. We worry that both we and our youth are addicted, that we’re distracted, that our mental well-being is suffering. I’d like to make six points about screens and mental health that introduce more grey area, more complexity, and less panic than these headlines.

Personal Slide
Source: Personal Slide

My first point is that because these technologies are so new, it feels like our panic about them decaying our social fabric is also new. But it is anything but. Moral panics about new technologies date back to the popularization of writing, which Socrates feared would result in a loss of memory. For if we could write things down, wouldn’t our brains lose the ability to hold on to old information?

One example from our long history of panic is when the printing press meant that people began to get their information from the newspaper rather than the pulpit or the town crier, skeptics warned of the “sullen silence” of readers, of the dispersion of the people.

Much later, decriers of radio feared especially for the children and for their sleep in particular—that they would no longer be able to pay attention to school assignments, that their sleep would be disrupted by this cacophony of stimuli.

Personal Slide
Source: Personal Slide

Similar panics accompanied the television, the internet, and on and on. In all of these cases, we adapted, we adjusted. Until the next technology came along, inciting a new panic.

My second point goes back to this not being a true rebuttal or disagreement with some of the main points made by other presenters. I’m constantly being cast as a techno-optimist and someone who must advocate we give every kindergartner unrestricted access to a smartphone. Human beings love dichotomies, but most of them are false.

Personal Slide
Source: Personal Slide

Point three: I too find Dr. Twenge’s graphs compelling and alarming. But we have to be cautious in interpreting broad time-based correlations, especially in large datasets. For a few reasons.

Tyler Vigen - Spurious Correlations
Source: Tyler Vigen - Spurious Correlations

This is my one snarky slide, for which I apologize. But when working with very large datasets, you can find correlations between variables that don’t share meaningful relationships in real life.

Moreover, and more importantly, there are numerous important changes that occurred over the same time period as the rise in both smartphones and social media use and mental health symptoms—like increasing income inequality, increasing awareness of racial injustice, changes in parenting practices, and political polarization. Also, our young people are being raised in a world in which resources are both perceived as scarce and capable of being snatched away at any moment. In this climate of extreme competition, our middle and high schoolers are getting instant alerts about their academic standing.

Personal Slides
Source: Personal Slides

Point 4: These effects are very small and depend on how you define variables.

A major paper by Amy Orben and Andrew Przbylski in Nature Human Behavior took the same large national datasets used by Dr. Twenge and others and found that minor variations in how you analyzed the data resulted in negative effects, no effects, or positive effects—and that variables like potato eating and eyeglasses use predicted well-being similarly to screen time.

Moreover, what is ”screen time” anyway? I am endlessly perplexed by the shifting sands of whether we’re debating any sort of screens—including TV and video games and Netflix—or whether we’re talking about smartphones only, or social media only. I have many questions about “screen time” if we’re collapsing across time spent FaceTiming with friends, playing Fortnite, binging Netflix, and working on homework.

Moreover, several studies have shown that when you install an app on people’s phones to measure actual screentime, it has alarmingly little correspondence with how much time they REPORT spending on their smartphones—and nearly all of these studies rely on self-report.

Point 5, which we’ve already foreshadowed—context is critical. What you’re doing on your phones. What your real life support is. Who you are as a person.

Personal Slide
Source: Personal Slide

Certain habits of screen use are likely to set you up for decrements in well-being—if you’re using your screens to replace sleep, as Dr. Twenge has shown in her research, or if you’re removed from the people around you.

On the other hand, using screens to connect, to amplify, to interact—I would argue these behaviors are likely to drive up well-being. I call this principle—use social technology to enhance or augment your existing social relationships, not to eclipse them.

Finally, if we panic and go whole-hog restricting youth access to social media, we could be restricting their social capital, their autonomy, and their burgeoning role as digital citizens in this technological world we live in.

Personal Slide
Source: Personal Slide

Danah Boyd calls social media a new kind of public space, and it is one that our young people are using to connect and to understand the world, especially in an environment where we increasingly don't let them socialize outside of our view.

Moreover, research indicates a surprising finding—the people we think of as the most vulnerable may stand to benefit the most from social media.

Social media may “lower the cost of admission” to social interaction for people who struggle with irl social interaction (e.g., those who are neurodiverse, clinically depressed).

Social media may also connect marginalized youth with welcoming communities.

As psychologists Adam Waytz and Kurt Gray write in a review of this literature, "Online technology enhances sociability when people use it to bolster or create relationships with prospective or existing offline friends, but it is associated with diminished sociability when used excessively—unless face-to-face engagement does not come easily."

I think what it comes down to is a choice of metaphor. Do you view social technology, smartphones, and social media as a drug of abuse—needing restriction, avoiding even small doses? Or do you view it more like sugar, where feeding your child your grandmother’s pecan rolls on Thanksgiving is wonderful, but feeding them soda at every meal is ill-advised? It is probably obvious which metaphor I favor.

CONCLUSION:
Let’s frame the conversation around healthy habits and good digital citizenship rather than panic and restriction.

You can read more of these thoughts here, and a nice write-up of the whole day with the Washington State House of Representatives here.