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30-Year Study Shows Teens’ Use of Digital Tech Not Linked to Worse Mental Health

Teenager with long hair is smiling, while using a laptop.

Key Takeaways

  • There has been minimal to no increase in associations between technology usage among teenagers and mental health challenges, based on almost three decades of research in the US and the UK.
  • The study found no consistent changes in the association between the use of technology and conduct problems or suicidality.
  • Over time, engagement with social media and television viewing became less strongly associated with depression while the association of social media and emotional problems increased slightly.

Teenagers are often chastised for always being on their phones as if it is a bad thing. A recently published study in Clinical Psychological Science found minimal evidence for an increased association between technology use among adolescents and mental health issues over the past 30 years.

With people of all ages relying on technology more during the pandemic for work, school, and everything else in between, it is reassuring to note that this use of technology is not as harmful as is sometimes assumed.

Given how social distancing has had negative impacts on mental health, this research bodes well for the ways in which technology can provide a sense of connection and community when unable to spend time together in person, as may still be recommended to address these COVID-19 variants.

What This Study Tells Us

This research relied on three large nationally representative data sets from 430,000 teenagers in the US and the UK to assess for associations between social media, television viewing, and digital device use with suicidality, depression, emotional challenges, and conduct issues.

Researchers were interested in exploring links between how the technology use of teenagers and mental health had changed over three decades with the understanding that this relationship is dynamic and may shift over time.

The patterns of change based on this study suggest that youth may be engaging with emerging technology in ways that may help, rather than harm, mental health, although researchers caution that it is too early to draw firm conclusions that may dictate norms for policy or regulation.

Healthy Boundaries Still Make Sense

Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC, says, "There appears to be a correlation between our teens, tech, and their mental health. In response to the pandemic, we're using tech more than ever before."

Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

I encourage my clients to think about their relationship with tech in terms of how much time they spend on it, what drives them to scroll on social, and how doing this makes them feel.

— Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Rosenblatt encourages boundaries with their screens for teens, and included recommendations such as getting adequate sleep, eating nutritious food, and engaging in daily movement to manage mental health, especially in the context of the pandemic, which has meant remote school and social isolation for many teens, as well as missing milestones like graduation.

Technology Can Improve Mental Health

Clarissa Harwell, LCSW, says, "I see teens in my private practice and I also assess children and teens in mental health crises for suicide and homicide risk as part of a county crisis team. I work with families around healthy electronics use and am typically encouraging parents to support their teens using electronics to connect to peers, among other uses."

Clarissa Harwell, LCSW

These studies validate the information I have been giving to caregivers for years—if the teen has positive connections to a safe adult in their life, who does not put down their interests, shame them for using their phone, social media, etc., then digital devices can be used in very positive ways.

— Clarissa Harwell, LCSW

In this way, Harwell highlights the vital ways in which technology can be helpful for teenagers to develop and maintain friendships during a period when it can be challenging to nurture relationships, even when not faced with social distancing restrictions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

What This Means For You

As these 3 large-scale research studies of teenagers in the US and the UK demonstrates, there was no consistent change in associations between technology use and mental health in the last 30 years.

Especially given how much more people have had to rely on technology during the pandemic, this may ease fears of harmful effects to come.

To manage mental health, boundaries on screen time are recommended, as is a holistic approach that includes attention to other relevant factors such as sleep, nutrition, movement, etc.

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  1. Vuorre M, Orben A, Przybylski AK. There is no evidence that associations between adolescents’ digital technology engagement and mental health problems have increasedClin Psychol Sci. 2021:216770262199454. doi:10.1177/2167702621994549