For many teenagers and young people, perhaps one of their new year’s resolutions was to spend less time on smartphones, tablets, and computers, all in an effort to limit screen time. But that resolution, no doubt, was quickly discarded when we entered lockdown. Just as the year was beginning to see signs of new life … life as we knew it, ceased.

What did the vast majority do with their suddenly newfound free time but now spent indoors? Without the ability to interact physically, all social activity, as well as learning, transferred online. The result? Screen time shot up.

We are all too well aware of alarmist headlines such as ‘Screen time affects kids’ brain development’, ‘Increase screen time linked to a greater risk of depression amongst young people’, and uncomfortable probing questions such as ‘Have smartphones destroyed a generation?’ For parents and carers of children, the increase in use might have caused worry and concern and for young people, many will have felt uneasy.

With such rhetoric from the media, we would be forgiven for believing that screen time damages our mental and emotional wellbeing. But one researcher is convinced we are getting it all wrong. Dr Amy Orben believes we need to, ‘move away from the idea that all screen time is bad’ and instead look at it as a ‘window to the world’.

Amy is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge and she and her team are looking at how the use of digital technology and screen time affect the wellbeing of young people. Amy is young herself — in her 20s — so she has grown up with digital technology, which I see as beneficial in her research when understanding young people’s digital and social media experiences.

Social media and mental wellbeing

I wanted to clarify what constitutes screen time and where, on the spectrum of mental health, does she focus? Amy asserts that ‘any screen that you use while sitting down and not moving’ constitutes screen time. Fitness exercises and games such as Pokemon Go are not counted as screen time. She also wanted to break down screen time. Most people think of social media but this is just one aspect. Screen time also constitutes reading, researching and learning, catching up on box-sets or finding new recipes: ‘it isn’t the time that’s spent on certain platforms or on a device but it is what we are doing,’ stresses Amy.

As for mental health, she takes ‘a general approach from life satisfaction and mental wellbeing on the one side to depression and emotional disorders on the other side’. Amy acknowledged that there are huge differences in the mental health spectrum and differentiation is needed but, because her and others’ ‘work in this space is at the very beginning’, research hasn’t started to pare those apart.

The million-dollar question

Between 2004 and 2017, Young Minds, a UK charity tackling children and young people’s mental health, recorded an increase of 48 per cent of 5-15-year-olds displaying or reporting emotional disorders. If digital technologies are not the reason for this rise, what else, in her opinion, plays a role? She regards this ‘as the million-dollar question’ and it’s an area that parents, policymakers and politicians have been grappling with for a long time.

Factors include: ‘an increase in awareness of mental wellbeing’, to the increase in pressure at school and university and the subsequent fear of failure. She cited data from America, where links have been made between a ‘drop in economic prosperity’ and mental wellbeing, which were noticeable in the 2008 financial crash. This is alarming. Young people, in particular, have been hugely affected by the continuing economic ruptures that the pandemic has placed upon us, so what does this mean for our future collective mental wellbeing? Amy also cites the ‘rise of individualism’ resulting in people ‘fend[ing] for themselves’. And so while ‘technology is part of that really complicated network of different factors’, we cannot, as all too often media and politicians promulgate, solely blame digital technologies on young people’s declining mental health.

Displacement hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis

If digital technologies are a small factor in the decline in mental wellbeing, I questioned why do organisations, such as the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), call for media boundaries and plans to be made? With such guidance in place, I asked, surely that is an indication that there is some basis of concern around screen time and its potentially harmful effects? Pausing for a few seconds of reflection, Amy states that it is reasonable for there to be guidelines because ‘digital technologies are such a key part of our lives, and so we need to think about how we use them’. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), in her opinion, set the best guidelines: ‘family life is not structured around technology use but those technologies are structured around family life’. Like the messaging we receive around our diet and exercise, we should take a similarly balanced approach with digital technologies, and, when we practice the latter guidance, ‘it encourages positive behaviour.’

Critics of digital technologies, however, often point to the displacement hypothesis, arguing that screen time takes us away from doing something more worthwhile such as exercise or reading. Amy argues that this hypothesis is highly nuanced and doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. For starters, screen time, as she again maintains, can encompass a whole range of activities and, especially for disadvantaged children, ‘an hour interacting with content and learning, might be an hour not spent on the street’. Displacement hypothesis too often is viewed through our own lens, and not through the eyes of others.

Displacement hypothesis was bought into sharp focus during lockdown. For the majority of young people, the use of digital technologies aided wellbeing by being the only means through which they gained ‘a window to the world’. For Amy, ‘lockdown showed us how bad a measure of screen time is for the effects on us’. Without the ease of being able to go out and head over to a friend’s house, lockdown led to a ‘severe curtailing of contact with peers’ and that ‘rupturing of social contact [was] quite stressful, so there is a benefit where we can have social contact and do activities through technologies’. She had parents contacting her team, concerned that their teenagers were spending too much time on video games, such as Fortnite, with their friends. For Amy, the aim was to allay parents’ fears and encourage them to view this behaviour as their way of ‘letting their hair down’ after a day’s work of online learning. She also reiterated her stance that it’s not how much time that is spent on screens, but rather the forms of activity and; as ‘there is so little evidence, we need to empower people to make those decisions’.

The one area where displacement hypothesis needs attention, however, is in relation to sleep deprivation. Most will recognise the syndrome of lying in bed, lights out, mindlessly scrolling on websites or on social media feeds, the thumb involuntarily but instinctively carrying out the body’s only motion. Sleep deprivation is a known cause of poor mental wellbeing and this type of screen time activity is, according to Amy, ‘the one we should take most seriously’.

Social media and … sugar?

I wanted to revisit her reinforcement of the notion that it isn’t how much time we spend online that’s the problem, but what we do. If that is the case, then what does she think about the time spent on social media? In 2017, the RSPH issued guidance on using social media, especially Instagram. They reported it to be the ‘worst platform for mental health for children and teenagers’. There is also anecdotal evidence of youngsters appearing dissatisfied with their lives and even eager to alter their appearance, being influenced by celebrities such as the Kardashians. Amy took issue with some of the RSPH’s work. She insists that ‘the research they showed to back that up would not have passed scientific peer review process’ and, that their oversimplification led to unnecessary scaremongering.

She elaborated her thinking by placing the concerns of social media in the context of a longer-term time frame. She reels off a list: in the 1940s, there was a concern about radio addiction amongst the young; in the 1950s, an increase in aggression was blamed on comic books; the 1960s, television was deemed harmful and, by the 1990s and 2000s, Photoshop was touted as the reason for an increase in teenage anorexia.

While Amy didn’t want to dismiss concerns, she asserted that ‘there are inherent parts of being a teenager and being human and being influenced by your environment’. And while that influence may be negative, the discussion would still be here if social media wasn’t present but still displayed in ‘other forms of media, such as television, magazines or novels’. This long-term view actually gives a novel, and perhaps a more reassuring and reflective outlook on the issue. Just as radio and television are now embedded in our lives naturally, perhaps this assessment will reduce the concerns around digital technologies and social media as they too become more firmly rooted, and normalised, in our everyday lives.

What about immediate harmful content on social media? Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter do moderate such content, but the minute it is erased, it pops up elsewhere like a never-ending cruel game of Whac-A-Mole. The parents of 14-year-old Molly Russell blamed harmful content on Instagram as one of the main reasons for her suicide in 2017. Understandably, it hit national headlines. Adding in a decade’s worth of other concerns over social media, the UK Government introduced the Online Harms White Paper in April of last year. Its aims are to ‘protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content’.

For Amy, who has studied the White Paper, she feels that the government hasn’t grappled with the nuances in this space. To her, defining forms of online harm is hard ‘because a certain type of content might be really harmful to one person but not another’ and, as such, ‘that makes guidance really difficult’. She likens it to a diet. Take the instance of refined sugar which, ‘might be really beneficial to someone who is halfway through a triathlon but deadly with someone with severe diabetes’. The government hasn’t started a campaign to protect us all from white refined sugar, instead, it offers us guidance on its consumption. The same gradations are needed for screen time and social media. Aim hopes that over the next decade work will be undertaken to understand the benefits and risks, and that these will be dealt with accordingly.

Reflecting on this part of our conversation, I wondered if the government felt pressure to be seen as taking action. But that without careful consideration of the broad range of scientific research, much of which is still in its infancy, there is a reluctance to commit. I am sure Amy would agree with this thought. Throughout our conversation, she kept reinforcing the idea that greater nuance is required in this sphere before action can be taken.

‘Window to the world’

The one phrase that kept circling was ‘window to the world’. Technology is an integral part of our 21st-century life. It is a great way, sometimes the only way, to connect, develop, and learn. As we saw throughout lockdown, we need it to aid our wellbeing. We needed it to thrive. It has become a ‘mediator of a huge amount of activity and connections’ with risks and benefits. And, we are only just at the beginning of a long road of research that is starting to grapple with these issues. While we await answers, the best solution for now, as Amy points out, is for individuals to make a judgment call with screen time and be their own mindful moderator.

So, before you put down your phone or tablet after reading this with a twinge of screen time guilt, be reminded that digital technology is there to act as ‘a window to the world’. It was our only window for many weeks and will continue to be a lens through which we view life for years and decades to come.

DISCLAIMER: The articles on our website are not endorsed by, or the opinions of Shout Out UK (SOUK), but exclusively the views of the author.