Screen Time Doesn't Appear to Impact Mental Health Directly

Young people's psychological well-being may not be influenced by screen time.

Posted Apr 08, 2019

A new preregistered research paper (Orben and Przybylski, 2019) found little evidence that there is a clear-cut correlation between screen time and psychological well-being in a cohort of 17,246 adolescents living in the US, UK, and Ireland.

These findings, “Screens, Teens, and Psychological Well-Being: Evidence From Three Time-Use-Diary Studies," were published online April 2 in the journal Psychological Science. In the paper’s abstract, the authors write, “We found little evidence for substantial negative associations between digital-screen engagement—measured throughout the day or particularly before bedtime—and adolescent well-being.”

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With controversial topics such as young people’s screen time, having a study preregistered is a way to guarantee that researchers don’t skew their interpretation of data to confirm a pre-research hypothesis. For example, even if the researchers speculated that excessive screen time would harm adolescents’ mental health before collecting data—because the research study was preregistered, they're obligated to report all findings, even those that might disprove an original hypothesis. Preregistration of a research question and various hypotheses before conducting a study makes the results of preregistered studies more credible.

For this potentially controversial paper, which casts doubt on the widely-held assumption that excessive screen time harms psychological well-being, the researchers used a rigorous methodology for assessing how much time study participants spent looking a digital screen based on three different time-use diary studies. This three-pronged approach to monitoring actual screen time is of paramount importance; many people are inclined to self-report lower amounts of digital-screen engagement because of the widespread belief that excessive screen time is “bad” for us.

However, as mentioned, the researchers found that adolescents’ average daily screen time both on weekdays and weekends didn't have a direct impact on mental health. Even before bedtime, their data revealed that spending anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours engaged with a digital screen before going to sleep was not directly correlated with decreased psychological well-being in teenagers.

Previous research (Walch et al., 2016) has shown that pre-bedtime smartphone use can disrupt circadian rhythms and sleep hygiene for people of all ages. (For more see, “Smartphones Reveal How the Modern World Is (Not) Sleeping”) Although excessive screen time and smartphone usage may be linked to insomnia, according to the latest research by Orben & Przybylski, screen time does not appear to have a direct impact on teens' mental health.

To gain a comprehensive snapshot of teenagers' psychological well-being, the researchers compared data on an individual's psychosocial functions, symptoms of depression, overall mood, and self-esteem based on feedback from each teen and his or her caregivers. 

The authors sum up the significance of these findings in the Discussion section of their paper:

"Public opinion seems to be that using digital screens immediately before bed may be more harmful for teens than screen time spread throughout the day. Our exploratory and confirmatory analyses provided very mixed effects: Some were negative, while others were positive or inconclusive. Our study, therefore, suggests that technology use before bedtime might not be inherently harmful to psychological well-being, even though this is a well-worn idea both in the media and in public debates."

"Implementing best practice statistical and methodological techniques we found little evidence for substantial negative associations between digital-screen engagement and adolescent well-being," co-author Amy Orben said in a statement. Orben is a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and College Lecturer at the Queen's College, University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the psychology of social media and well-being.

"Because technologies are embedded in our social and professional lives, research concerning digital-screen use and its effects on adolescent well-being is under increasing scrutiny," Orben said.

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"While psychological science can be a powerful tool for understanding the link between screen use and adolescent well-being, it still routinely fails to supply stakeholders and the public with high-quality, transparent, and objective investigations into growing concerns about digital technologies. Analyzing three different data sets, which include improved measurements of screen time, we found little clear-cut evidence that screen time decreases adolescent well-being, even if the use of digital technology occurs directly before bedtime," co-author, Andrew Przybylski, who is Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, said in a statement.

The authors emphasize the importance of preregistered studies in their conclusion, "As the influence of psychological science on policy and public opinion increases, so must our standards of evidence. This article proposes and applies multiple methodological and analytical innovations to set a new standard for the quality of psychological research on digital contexts. Granular technology-engagement metrics, large-scale data, use of specification-curve analysis (SCA) to generate hypotheses, and preregistration for hypothesis testing should all form the basis of future work. To retain the influence and trust we often take for granted as a psychological research community, robust and transparent research practices will need to become the norm—not the exception."


Amy Orben and Andrew K. Przybylski. "Screens, Teens, and Psychological Well-Being: Evidence From Three Time-Use-Diary Studies." Psychological Science (First published online: April 2, 2019)  DOI: 10.1177/0956797619830329