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Guest Post: The Confounding Relationship Between Smart Phones and Mental Health

Sarah Rose Cavanagh reminds us that when it comes to big questions, it's always complicated.

January 20, 2019
 
 

I was recently irked by a Twitter thread by Jonathan Haidt, co-author (along with Greg Lukianoff) of the best selling The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure, declaring that that increased depression and self-harm is directly attributable to "overprotection" and the use of social media. I was previously irked by Haidt & Lukianoff's book, which I believe attempts to make complex phenomena simple, in an effort to promote their pet theory. Whenever these sorts of things arise, my first response is always, "But it's more complicated than that" because it is. I wanted to write about it, but then I realized there was someone far more qualified, an actual psychologist who directly studies these subjects, while also being a careful person who acknowledges the real-world complexity of these issues. That person is Sarah Rose Cavanagh, who is also author of one of my favorite books on teaching and pedagogy, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the Classroom With the Science of Learning. "It's complicated," isn't going to grab headlines in major publications, but if we're going to have any chance of ameliorating these problems, we're much better off recognizing the complications, rather than settling for tidy narratives. - JW

 

The Confounding Relationship Between Smartphones and Mental Health
By Sarah Rose Cavanagh

THE DOMINANT NARRATIVE

In September of 2017, psychologist Jean Twenge posted a soon-to-be-viral essay on The Atlantic called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”It proclaimed nothing short of a mental health crisis among young people, which Twenge attributed largely to their time on smartphones

It hit a nerve, and that nerve has not stopped zinging since. 

Our communal fears about screens and mental health have become both trait and state—a steady, consistent thrum in our collective conscious (trait) that now and again erupts in intensity upon the release of a new book or viral article (state). You hear these fears echoed in the grocery line, over the table at holiday gatherings, and from your social partners venting on, ironically, social media.

A recent flare-up seemed tied to psychologist and writer Jonathan Haidt’s posting a series of tweets ascribing elevations in self-harm in young women in part to social media and The New York Times publishing an op-ed detailing all of the things you could do in a year if you got rid of your smartphone—the latter of which somehow included having sex 44 times a day but just for five minutes at a time. 

Research attempting to answer the question, “are smartphones and social media good or bad for mental health?” thus far yields deeply equivocal results. I believe that this ambiguity is rooted in two important principles. First, the question itself is so over-simplistic as to be essentially meaningless. Second, despite our attraction to stark binaries, real life seldom falls out along their lines. 

So rather than attempt to answer the question directly, let’s instead consider four complexities that support why I think the good-or-bad question oversimplifies the issue to the point of absurdity, and then end on the few points that most researchers seem to agree on. 

 

COMPLEXITY #1: IS THERE ANY SUCH THING AS “SCREEN TIME”?

At the outset of every psychology experiment you must create what are called operational definitions of the variables you want to measure, which means to define your construct of interest in such a way that you can measure it. In many ways, the worth of everything you do next depends on how well you perform this first step, the extent to which your operational definitions of your variables match the real-world phenomena you are trying to study. 
Both research studies and think pieces on this topic tend to discuss a variable called “screen time,” which lumps together time out of a day spent on smartphones, social media, video games, television, and computers. Essentially, anything on a screen.

For a few outcomes like eyesight and sleep, number of hours staring at a screen may indeed be a valuable measure. But I would argue that when trying to evaluate whether one’s use of digital technologies will positively or negatively affect depression or anxiety or happiness, “screen time” is a terrible metric. FaceTiming with your little sister from your dorm room is not the same as navigating Fortnite is not the same as texting your romantic partner is not the same as enviously flipping through Instagram is not the same as practicing Italian on Duolingo. All of these activities involve very different mental processes—social interaction, spatial navigation, language, learning, emotion—and are thus unlikely to have unilateral effects on well-being just because they’re all delivered via a device. 


Even when you winnow down to one specific type of screen use, not all use is created equal. For instance, research on social media specifically has found that that passive use of social media (so-called lurking without engaging) is negatively associated with well-being, but activeuse of social media (posting, commenting, sharing) is positively associated with well-being—and that receiving personalized content from close friends like being tagged in memories is more predictive of well-being than “one-click feedback” like a heart, star, or thumbs-up. A thorough review of whether digital technology makes us more or less sociable concluded that using social technologies in ways that reinforce and strengthen existing social relationships are associated with more positive outcomes and using them in ways that replace or stand in the way of existing social relationships seem to be associated with more negative outcomes—a principle I call “enhance, don’t eclipse.”

Research into the relationship between screen time and mental health needs to get a lot more fine-grained, and early studies that have taken this lens have shown just the complexity you would expect.

 

COMPLEXITY #2: THE TROUBLE WITH PEOPLE

In graduate school I was known for throwing a lot of parties. Not cool parties, mind you, not the type where time blurs and conversations get slippery and you’re not sure who might show up. I’m talking book clubs, themed murder mystery parties, and spring equinox bacchanals that would feature such non-bacchanalian things as evening hours, lots of covered limbs, and heated arguments about whether matrix algebra would be on the stats final. But more relevant for our concerns is what I’d do after these parties concluded, which was to use my first-gen digital camera and html to hack up a GeoCities page that resembled social media a good half-decade before Facebook came on the scene. I’ve always been an early adopter of social technologies, and on balance, digital technology and social media have made overwhelmingly positive contributions to both my personal and my professional life.

In sharp contrast to my experience, many people report that for them and/or their children, social technologies are distracting, demoralizing, and/or “addicting”—including some people feeling so disrupted by their screen habits that they check themselves into a rehabilitation center.  

My point is: people differ. Like the rest of the natural world, our behaviors and experiences and the relationships between them exist on a continuum, with most of us clustered around each other near the average and extremes out toward the tails.  

When considering the relationship between screen time and well-being, we may well see positive associations for some people, negative for others, and null for still others. Research looking for simple linear relationships between these variables that exist for all or most people are going to miss the big, messy picture that is the real world.

 

COMPLEXITY #3: THE TROUBLE WITH STATISTICS

I promise not to bring up matrix algebra, but we do need to talk a little stats. 

Correlation is not causation

Most of the research presented in support of the screen time/mental health question is correlational, and hopefully we all know by now that correlation does not causation make — enough so that I won’t belabor this point.

The effect, when found, is tiny, and may rely on analytic flexibility in data analysis

When you run statistics on very large datasets, you can observe statistically significant effects that in daily life wouldn’t make much practical difference. Many of the major smartphones/mental health studies report statistically significant effects that nonetheless explain on the order of half a percentage point of the variance of how depressed the participants are—or in other words, something like 99.5% of the depression levels of teens are predicted by other factors. Which doesn’t mean that smartphones aren’trelated to well-being, but it does mean that panic is probably unwarranted.

In a report released the same day I’m writing this piece, University of Oxford researchers Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski reanalyzed the same national datasets used by Twenge and other researchers. They demonstrate that by making slightly different choices in which depression items to consider and how to categorize screen use, you could find that smartphones predicted higher well-being, lower well-being, or no relationship at all. They also found other variables that statistically predicted very small proportions of psychological functioning along the lines of the screen use effects—including eating potatoes, wearing eyeglasses, and not drinking milk. 

A lot of the media reporting on the primary research gloss over these statistical limitations and missing this intricacy can lead to unnecessary worry.

 

COMPLEXITY #4: THERE ARE MANY OTHER CONTRIBUTORS TO MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS

Many calls for screen caution seem to rely on the co-rise of smartphone use and mental health problems, the graphs of the two often overlaid upon or presented with each other. But what elsehas risen along with smartphone usage that could also be tied to increases in mental health problems?

Well, let’s see. Tremendous income inequality. Political polarization. Increasing climate crises. Panic about screen time. Decline of face-to-face social communities. Increasingly open racism and hate crimes. An overprotectiveparentingstyle that some of the same voices critiquing smartphone usage blame for other aspects of our societal ills. As John Warner so powerfully writes on this same blog, a growing perception of both scarcity (of resources) and precarity (of social standing). 

We’re asking our young people to take on an enormous amount of educationaldebt to enter an uncertain gig economy, where they’re one pink slip away from running a GoFundMe to pay for their suddenly-necessary heart surgery. If they navigate these precipitous shoals and stay afloat, the best they can hope for is a life of relentless parenting and multipleforms of burnout. 

Any of these variables seem at least as compelling possibilities for elevations in depression and anxiety symptoms as smartphones.

 

A CAVEAT

We’ve queried the relationship between using a screen to interact socially with your peers and your personal well-being. But this question relies in part on what seems to be stacking up to a mistaken assumption—that the people designing the apps and platforms you are using are operating, if not in good faith, then at least in neutral faith. Of course they’re designing their products to get you to want to use them more and more, that seems face-valid and self-evident, but surely they’re not using algorithms to encourage extremism, make your racism easier to implement, or to undermine democracy?

Increasingly, there is consensus that not only are the tech bros not going to save us, they appear to have been working against us all along. I’m still not throwing away my smartphone, but I will be paying attention to what officials running for office say about introducing legislation to regulate the social tech giants and how they operate. 

 

SO WHAT TO DO?

Continue researching—these are early days in the field. Our knowledge is benefited from debates like the ones among Haidt and Twenge and Orben and Przybylski. Let’s keep asking questions and challenging each other to do better and better research, especially research that takes into account these, and many other, complexities. 

I think that when in doubt, it is always a good idea to practice moderation. There are multipleguidesavailable to help set reasonable, healthy relationships with technology in yourself and your whole family.

Sleep—one of the few areas of agreement shaping up is that when you allow screens to disrupt or delay sleep, well-being suffers. 

And don’t panic

 

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Sarah Rose Cavanagh is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Associate Director for Grants and Research in the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellenceat Assumption College. She is author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion and upcoming HIVEMIND: How Social Media Is Reshaping Our Collective Selves.@SaRoseCav

 

 

 

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