A study of 17,000 teenagers analyzed the commonly-held notion that time spent in front of screens (whether it’s smartphones, TVs, or computers) is detrimental to a person’s mental health.

The results will certainly be pleasing to all teens.

Screens everywhere! Image in public domain.

Screen time

Whether we like it or not, screens have firmly entered our lives in the past few years, and for the foreseeable future, they are here to stay. Ever since personal computers became a thing, so too have concerns regarding these screens. They could be bad for your eyes, bad for your posture, bad for your mental health. Parents, in particular, have been worried about the effects on their children.

But at least in the last regard, there’s not much reason to worry. Screen time does not seem to correlate with mental wellbeing.

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“Implementing best practice statistical and methodological techniques we found little evidence for substantial negative associations between digital-screen engagement and adolescent wellbeing,” said Amy Orben, a Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and College Lecturer the Queen’s College, University of Oxford.

Regardless of when and where teens were in front of screens, it had little impact on their mental health. It didn’t make a difference if it was on weekends orweekdays, or even if it was just 30 minutes before bedtime — something which has long been considered as detrimental. Even wearing glasses had a more negative association with adolescent wellbeing than ‘screen time’.

So how come this study found such unexpected results?

A rigorous methodology

Unlike other studies, this research used data from Ireland, the US and the UK, implementing a more rigorous methodology to gather how much time an adolescent spends on screens per day, including both self-reported measures and time-use diaries. This is particularly important as many studies are based solely on self-reported stats, which is notoriously unreliable. The team also implemented another notable technique: preregistration. In this approach, scientific rigor is ensured by requiring researchers to provide details of how they will analyze the data before it is gathered. This ensures that the data is handled properly and that it is not in a way that would favor a post-results hypothesis.

Simply put, it’s quite possibly the most rigorous study in the field, and found that screen time does little to harm teenagers’ mental health.

“Because technologies are embedded in our social and professional lives, research concerning digital-screen use and its effects on adolescent wellbeing is under increasing scrutiny,” said Orben. “To retain influence and trust, robust and transparent research practices will need to become the norm—not the exception. We hope our approach will set a new baseline for new research on the psychological study of technology,” added Przybylski.

However, this shouldn’t be treated as a green light for all-day screen-watching. It is just a call to re-evaluate something which, in many communities, is held a as a fact.

The study has been published in Nature Human Behavior.