Is technology having a negative impact on our children’s mental health?
You may have read or heard on the news the rising concerns about mobile phone use in young people and the associations with mental health problems. Ideally, there would be a few watertight studies which confirmed the link and helped us as parents with our decision making.
The majority of the current evidence on mental health in adolescents comes from correlational studies, studies that look at trends over time and possible causation. For example, the first evidence that smoking caused lung cancer came from looking at simple correlational graphs that showed lung cancer dramatically increased as the popularity of smoking went up. As you can see the increase in smoking is closely linked with an increase in lung cancer after approximately a 20 year time lag.
However, cigarettes were only recognised as the cause of the epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite the mounting evidence, cigarette manufacturers continually disputed the link as part of a conspiracy to salvage cigarette sales. 1
Could the link between smart phone usage and adolescent mental health be a similar story to that of smoking and lung cancer?
Like smoking, smart phone and social media use is a new trend which has become rapidly popular and has huge financial implications for large companies. PAPAYA proposes that smart phone and social media use in adolescents is similar to the cover up on smoking in the 1950s. It is popular, alluring and seemingly benign; yet driven by huge financial opportunities and actually harmful, isolating and leads to disease of the body and mind. We cannot claim conclusive evidence or large randomised control trials, but we can speak common sense and observe correlations that we don’t believe can be ignored for much longer.
A study from Pew Research Centre in 2015 found that 92% of US teenagers go on line almost daily, with 24% saying they are online “almost constantly.”2
83% of 12-15 year olds now own a smartphone and 73% have a social media profile.3
There are concerns that the blue light of smart phones and their constant bleeping at night are stopping our children sleeping; that their high speed technology is contributing to ADHD; and that social media and cyber bullying is contributing to rising levels of anxiety and depression in young people. One of the strongest arguments against phone usage is linked to the unexplained rise in anxiety and depression in teenagers across the globe. Never before have we seen such a rise in mental health problems in our young adults. Depressions and economic hardships haven’t caused this effect before, and neither has exam pressure or poor job prospects. 4
You only need to walk down the street to see the distraction smart phones are causing. Coffee shops are full of people looking at their phones instead of each other, whilst school teachers are battling for pupil’s attention. A generation is emerging where every spare moment is consumed by their phone. Phones are stopping our young people to sleep at night and cause them to miss out on real life experiences in the day.
The average UK teenager will spend 82,000 hours online by the age of 80.
Based on a 10yr old spending 21.5 hrs a week online as per Ofcom report 2017.
Sleep deprivation is linked to poor thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain and it also affects mood. People who don’t sleep enough are prone to depression and anxiety. Although we can’t prove the path of causation, smartphones could be causing a lack of sleep which leads to depression, or the phones could be causing depression which leads to lack of sleep. 5
In a recent survey almost half (45%) of students admit they check their mobile device after going to bed with 23% checking their devices more than 10 times a night.
Almost all (94%) of these students are on social media after going to bed. 6
1/3 young people take their phones to bed with them
1/3 check their phones during the night
7/10 use their phones within 30 minutes of going to bed
Screens and Sleep, Common Sense Media , 2019
Loneliness & Cyberbullying
Social media is vastly alluring; it plays on our intrinsic need for relationships, affirmation and connection. However, rather than filling this need, it leaves impressionable adolescents disconnected and spending less time relating face to face with their peers and more time in isolation.
It is ebbing away at their free time (some 21.5 hours a week on their phones alone), allowing them to spend hours staring at a screen rather than pursuing other interests, which could contribute to a rise in wellbeing. Cyberbullying means that victims take the unhappiness home with them 24/7, something driving young people to depression and sometimes, very sadly, to take their own lives.
“16-24 year olds are the loneliest group in society.
There was a correlation between the more friends young people had on facebook and the more lonely they felt.”
All in mind, BBC radio 4 loneliness survey, Oct 2018
1/5 children have been bullied on line
Of those being bullied 24% self harm and 22% change their appearance as a result of the bullying. Only 13% delete the app on which they are being bullied on.
Ditch the label, The Wireless report , 2017
-25% of 12-15s say they have been contacted online by someone they don’t know.
-10% say they have seen something of a sexual nature that made them feel uncomfortable, either online or on their mobile phone.
-25% of 12-15 year olds say they have been bullied; either face to face or on social media.
1/3 of 15 year olds have sent a naked photo of themselves via a phone app.
1/4 have had a photo forwarded without their consent
Ditch the label, The Wireless report , 2017
Self-esteem is the way an individual perceives themselve and their self-value; it encompasses both self-confidence and self-acceptance. It is the internal mirror with which we view ourselves, and goes up and down with the world around us and how we perceive our role in those events. The root of many mental health problems is low self-esteem - it’s hard to feel happy if you don’t like yourself. However, self-esteem in young people is being damaged by their need for peer validation on social media and the constant comparison with others.
People are comparing their realistic offline selves to the idealized online selves of others, which can be detrimental to well-being and self-evaluation.7
Recent studies have found that frequent Facebook users believe that other users are happier and more successful, especially when they do not know them very well offline. 7
“Social media can externalise self esteem…
….making young people dependant on likes and followers for their sense of self-worth”
Adolescents are relying on Facebook likes and instagram followers to build their self-esteem and sense of self rather than through real connection with real people.
Anxiety & Depression
There is little conclusive research available in the UK to track mental health symptoms in adolescents and young adults. However, anecdotally it is clear to see that mental health problems are on the increase in the young and old.
At 14, when children reported their own symptoms, 24% of girls and 9% of boys were suffering from symptoms of depression.8
1/9 children have a diagnosed mental health problem.
The five year forward view for mental health, Mental Health Task Force, 2016
A recent large US study found those adolescents’ depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates increased between 2010 and 2015, especially among females. It showed that adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and that adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services) were less likely. 9
(1) Tob Control. 2012 Mar;21(2):87-91. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2011-050338. The history of the discovery of the cigarette-lung cancer link: evidentiary traditions, corporate denial, global toll.Proctor RN1.
(2) http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/09/teens-social-media-technology-2015/ by Amanda Lenhart
(9) Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time - Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, Gabrielle N. Martin, 2018