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Fears about kids’ screen use may have been overblown, Oxford researchers find

Many people take it as gospel that digital technologies are harmful to young people’s mental health. But is this actually the case? A recent study from the University of Oxford, which analyzed data from 350,000 subjects in the U.K and United States, suggests we may be overstating their significance.

While the researchers don’t deny that digital technologies can have a negative impact on young users, they conclude that it contributes just 0.4 percent toward a young person’s negative well-being. According to the study, digital technologies are far, far outstripped by other influences — including binge-drinking, marijuana use, and even the importance of a good breakfast.

“I started working on this project in about September 2017, when there was massive coverage in the press of social media and its effects on teenagers, because of Jean Twenge’s book iGen,” Amy Orban, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends.

As the book which publicized the supposed impact that smartphones and other devices are having on the mental health of young people, iGen prompted plenty of op-eds and analysis of this topic. In particular, it linked lack of sleep and the supposedly detrimental effects of technology. However, this latest Oxford study suggests that there are plenty of other ways that data gathered about young people’s mental health and external factors — including technology — can be analyzed.

“To use a metaphor, statisticians will sometimes talk about analyzing data as being like walking down a series of forking paths,” Orban continued. “You make countless decisions about things like how to define well-being, how to define technology use, what kind of control measures you use, and more. There’s a huge amount of flexibility in it.”

Her work involved using a technique called Specification Curve Analysis (SCA). This helped to look at the approximately 600 million ways the data could have been analyzed and shows the large number of possible conclusions — positive, negative and neutral — it could come to.

Orban said she is not surprised that people have latched onto a more negative appraisal of technology, but that, while there are questions to ask, she doesn’t believe these are currently precise enough.

“The problem is that the questions being asked about whether digital technologies are harmful to our lives are not nuanced enough,” she said. “Even social media use is really diverse. It could be someone Skyping their grandparents or being on a class WhatsApp group, but it could also be looking at skinny models online. It’s like asking ‘is eating good or bad for you?’ It really depends on the type of food and type of person we’re talking about.”

The research was recently published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

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