Maybe the Kids are Alright – Digital Technology use and Well-being

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Children and adolescents are digital natives; they don’t recall a time before the internet, before smartphones and being able to ask a voice assistant for help. Early research pointed to the potentially damaging impact of technology on the developing brain. Societal changes in rearing and socializing children in the era of technology also show troubling patterns for social skill development and data suggest worsening mental health for girls and boys. Is it all bad news?

Amy Orben from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford has a new paper in Nature Human Behavior looking at the association of adolescent well-being as it relates to the use of digital technology. Orben’s main criticism of prior studies is that the analytic frameworks that yield small effect sizes in the secondary analyses of larger social datasets may lead us to erroneous negative associations between adolescent well-being and technology use.

This study is crucial as we consider that our time online whether computer or device-driven has doubled in the last decade. It is it not uncommon to see tips on digital detoxes featured in newspaper and magazine columns on health and wellness. Understanding the implications of daily, multihour use is crucial for developing brains of adolescents.

Orben and colleagues applied Specification Curve Analysis (SCA) to address the prior methodological limits of previous studies and examined three sizeable social data sets totaling over 355,358 participants. The variables assessed in these datasets include social media use, TV viewing habits, use of home internet, device use and dimensions related to parental controls on these behaviors. The value of applying SCA methods enables more expanded testing of associations that are theoretically justified and analytically validated without needing to go fishing in the datasets for associations, in a manner it allows researches to look at how a data point can amplify the signal around a variable without being redundant in the process.

Findings indicate a small negative association between adolescent well-being and technology use, more modest than prior studies. The authors reflect that previous studies may have resulted in heavily weighting screen time use as a critical driver of negative impacts on well-being and they point out their data doesn’t bear this out. Findings indicate that smoking marijuana and bullying had a more negative effect on adolescent well-being when compared to technology use. The authors also point out that sleep quality and duration and eating breakfast had a positive impact on well-being.

I would say the picture is still emerging; we have integrated tech into our lives so seamlessly that parsing out what may be harmful or beneficial is far more nuanced than pre-smartphone days. Methodologically we also need to advance our assessments which may be too narrow by definition for modern living. Conscious consumption seems prudent and balancing that with the very things that make us human, social connection, healthy habits and a good night’s sleep all matter for well-being.

Thanks for reading – Trina
(Opinions are my own)


The association between adolescent well-being and digital health

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