2 December 2020

Keep calm and scroll on

The Back Page

Screen time is not associated with poorer mental health.

However, believing that your screen time is associated with poorer mental health IS associated with poorer mental health.

That’s the slightly hall-of-mirrors finding of a study published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior from UK researchers, who tracked the smartphone usage of about 250 people and compared it with their perceived mental health and level of worry about smartphone usage.

The team measured participants’ mental health using anxiety and depression scales, and how problematic they believed their usage to be by getting them to rate statements like: “Using my smartphone longer than I had intended”, and “Having tried time and again to shorten my smartphone use time but failing all the time”.

The lead author, psychology PhD student Heather Shaw of Lancaster University, said: “A person’s daily smartphone pickups or screen time did not predict anxiety, depression, or stress symptoms.

“Additionally, those who exceeded clinical ‘cutoff points’ for both general anxiety and major depressive disorder did not use their phone more than those who scored below this threshold.”

On the other hand, scoring highly for worrying about your phone time was associated with worse scores for anxiety and depression.

So pervasive in our culture is the pessimistic assumption/moral panic point that screen time is bad for you, it’s causing more mental harm than actual screen time, the authors suggest.

Co-author Dr David Ellis from Bath University said: “Our results add to a growing body of research that suggests reducing general screen time will not make people happier. Instead of pushing the benefits of digital detox, our research suggests people would benefit from measures to address the worries and fears that have grown up around time spent using phones.”

Caveat: Somewhat appropriately, The Back Page has not actually read the full study – for want of access, rather than for want of attention span due to excessive screen time, or at least we’d like to – ooh a Twitter notification. Sorry, what was I … oh yes. We’ll update this story with a link to the paper when it is made available.

Update: Here it is

Prefer the pessimistic version? Try this podcast from our friends at Healthed about compulsive internet use in teenagers.

If you see something stupid, say something stupid … send tips by carrier pigeon to felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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