SALT LAKE CITY — The image of a brooding teen with a smartphone attached to her hand and eyes glued to the screen has likely become an archetype for today’s youth. And excess screen time might look like an obvious place to lay blame for the growing teen mental health crisis.
But according to Brigham Young University researchers?
“Screen time matters less than we think,” said Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life. Instead, the conversation should focus on how teens spend screen time.
During an eight-year study that included 500 teens, the researchers found no link between prolonged screen time and depression or anxiety. The study was recently published in Computers in Human Behavior and might change the dialogue surrounding how to help today’s youth navigate an increasingly digital world.
“A lot of the research that’s been done previously — and then also kind of the public dialogue around this — is that time spent on social media is directly related to mental health problems, and might even be responsible for kind of this increase in mental health problems that we’ve been seeing over the last couple years,” Coyne said.
The researchers wanted to examine the long-term impact of social media on mental health, and what they found surprised them.
Coyne said the team analyzed data in a “more robust” way, working with teenagers from ages 13 to 20 who completed questionnaires about their social media use on a yearly basis. Analysis of that data showed that time spent on social media was not related to mental health issues in the future, according to Coyne.
The teens’ average time spent on social media did rise through the years, along with depression and anxiety on average. But Coyne said that matched with the way depression peaks in late adolescence and early adulthood.
Thirteen-year-olds on average reported visiting social network sites for 31-60 minutes per day, researchers said. By young adulthood, the participants reported spending two hours per day on social media.
“And so one might think it’s got to be the two (together),” she said. But looking at each teen, the researchers found that those whose social media use increased in a year didn’t have increased depression and anxiety. And when a teen decreased their social media use over a year, it also didn’t impact their depression and anxiety symptoms.
“I think we’re having the wrong conversation right now. So a lot of what I hear, a potential solution, is we just need to reduce teenagers’ screen time. So it’s all about screen time, just get kids off their phones, reduce screen time, and it will solve all the problems,” Coyne explained.
However, “these devices are not going away, social media is not going away, so just telling your kid to get off their phone or to give them a flip phone is not the answer.”
She said she hopes the research will drive the conversation to empowering parents to teach their kids about healthy social media use. Other research has found that certain activities on social media can even lead to better mental health, she said.
“And so it’s really all the way that we use it. It’s not just about reducing screen time, it’s about teaching children to use it in a better way. ... You take two individuals, put them on social media at the exact same period of time, and they have two totally different effects, depending on the way they use it,” according to Coyne.
She said using social media in “active ways” can actually be beneficial. Those uses include liking, posting and making positive comments on other people’s posts.
“This allows us to connect to people in a different way” than simply scrolling through feeds — a more passive activity “because you’re not connecting, you’re often having high social comparisons and a host of other issues there.”
Coyne also says there’s a difference in outcomes one experiences when viewing social media out of boredom versus seeking connections or information there.
The professor encouraged parents to help their kids avoid their phones in the hour before bedtime, as screen time can lead to sleep problems that can cause depression and anxiety.
She also said it’s important for them to be wary of social comparisons and to be thoughtful about when they’re comparing themselves to another person on social media.
“When does connecting make you feel good, and when does it not?” Coyne suggested asking.
It’s OK to unfollow someone if they make you feel bad about yourself, she said.
Though the study focused on teens, she said those suggestions could also apply to adults.
BYU researchers have also been working on a curriculum for kids from fifth to eighth grades based on the new research. The curriculum is geared to help parents have healthy conversations about social media and screen time with their kids, Coyne said.
“Because a lot of parents are coming to me and they’re like, ‘We need tools, we don’t know how to teach our kids. We don’t know the conversations to have,’” she said.
Videos with the instruction can be found on Coyne’s website, sarahmcoyne.com/resources.