Cyberbabble: screens and young people’s mental health

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Questioning some of the media hype about ‘mental health’ in recent debates about children, young people and social media.

In the past couple of years, there’s been something of a shift in the public debate about children and digital media. The narrow obsession with risk and harm has to some extent been displaced by a broader emphasis on mental health. Many would see this as a welcome development. For a long time, public discussions of young people’s relations with online media were dominated by melodramatic concerns about paedophiles and pornography – concerns undoubtedly stoked by a massively-funded internet safety industry. On the face of it, the focus on mental health appears to provide a somewhat broader approach, and to encompass a wider set of issues. However, there are some fundamental problems here, not just about the evidence that is used to support such arguments, but also with the way the issue is framed and defined.

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Much of the discussion begins from the assertion that we are seeing a growing crisis in young people’s mental health. Depression and anxiety have apparently reached epidemic proportions, and are growing at an unprecedented rate. Far from being carefree and happy, it is argued, children today are insecure, lonely and miserable. According to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, two in three people face ‘mental health problems’; and of these 34 million people, it is apparently the young who are most at risk – although commentators seem somewhat divided as to whether the problem afflicts young women more than young men, or vice versa.

There are undoubtedly many groups of people who have an interest in ‘talking up’ such phenomena, including health care professionals and teachers. At a time when budgets for mental health services and schools have been cut, they are probably right to do so. Yet when the likes of Prince Harry go public about their problems, the issue provides ample fodder for opinionated columnists eager to reach their required word-count. Explanations are predictably diverse. While some commentators place the blame on vaguely defined large-scale phenomena like ‘neoliberal individualism’, others argue that this apparent crisis is a result of austerity, or the pressures of school testing regimes, or even of Brexit. And, as we shall see, many point the finger at technology and social media.


But how good is the evidence for such claims? Over the summer, there were numerous media reports in the UK of a study conducted by the UCL Institute of Education and the National Children’s Bureau. According to most newspaper reports, the study showed that ‘one in four girls have depression by the time they hit 14’, and that this represented an alarming increase. Yet on a closer look, it actually does no such thing.

The study is part of the Millennium Cohort Study, which is following a large cohort of children born in 2000. As its authors admit, it provides no basis whatsoever to make historical comparisons with the incidence of mental health problems among the same age groups at earlier times (and hence for any claims about increases or decreases). In previous years, the parents of children in the study were asked about ‘emotional symptoms’ (such as feeling sad or worried); and in the latest round of questionnaires, children themselves were asked directly for the first time. It’s hardly surprising that adolescents should report feeling some negative moods and emotions; but this is very far from a diagnosis of ‘depression’.

This example points to some broader difficulties with this kind of research. It relies on self-reporting – that is, asking people to respond to a set list of tick-box items on a questionnaire (in the past two weeks, ‘I felt miserable or unhappy’, ‘I found it hard to think properly or concentrate’, and so on). Yet even in the context of an anonymous questionnaire, people’s ability or willingness to describe their emotions – and the language they use to do so – is bound to vary, across time and between different social groups.

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It may be the case that the numbers of people who consult doctors or counsellors about ‘mental health problems’ are rising – although comparative data are thin on the ground. However, this does not necessarily mean that the problems themselves are rising: it may simply mean that people are more likely to report them, or to seek help – and there may be many wider social or cultural reasons why they are more likely to do so than they were in the past.

These problems become more acute when it comes to thinking about the causes of such phenomena. As in earlier arguments about violence, or more recently in relation to obesity, ‘the media’ (another vague, all-encompassing category) are often seen as being primarily to blame. Thus, we have claims, even from seemingly reputable sources, that social media are ‘as harmful as drugs and alcohol’: they undermine young people’s empathy, encourage narcissism and anxieties about body image, and exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and social isolation. And the list goes on…

In fact, systematic reviews have found only very small correlations between poor mental health and the use of social media. There is no good evidence as regards any causal connection; and as ever, it is just as plausible that people who are depressed might be more inclined to seek out social media, as the other way about. Nevertheless, such claims continue to dominate the headlines.

One particularly energetic commentator on this issue in the last couple of years has been the US academic Jean Twenge, the author of pop psychology books with titles like Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic. Her arguments can be found everywhere, from US news reports through to the BBC World Service, and in magazine articles like this one.

As its title suggests, Twenge’s latest book iGen: Why Today’s Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood sets out to paint a comprehensive picture of a generation. In this sense, it stands in a long and annoying tradition of US commentary that seeks to map out the characteristics of the Baby Boomers, Generations X and Y, the Millennials, and so on. These generational divides are frequently defined in terms of technology – and so we have the Net Generation, the Digital Natives, and now Twenge’s iGen, an age group defined in and through its relationship with the internet, and especially with smartphones.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, these kinds of generational divisions are mostly quite arbitrary, yet they seem to sanction sweeping generalizations that ignore the diversity within generations, and the similarities that cut across them. It’s also debatable how far such arguments can be translated from the US to other contexts, where there have been different patterns of demographic change. When it comes to technology, this approach permits deterministic assertions about the influence of particular media that just don’t stand up to serious examination.

Twenge’s book draws on ‘big data’ drawn from large-scale, longitudinal surveys of young people. While such surveys have the authority of numbers, they are also bound to be superficial, especially when it comes to explaining the meaning and the causes of the phenomena they appear to identify. As if aware of this, Twenge supplements her graphs with quotations taken from one-to-one interviews; although this material is so impressionistic and anecdotal, it reads more like the made-up examples in a mass-market lifestyle magazine.

There are undoubtedly some interesting and unexpected generational trends here. For example, members of the ‘iGen’ (born after 1995) appear to be less religious, more socially inclusive, but also more emotionally attached to their parents, and less likely to drink alcohol, than earlier generations. Yet rather than exploring the relationships between and among these different variables, which would have required a more sophisticated statistical analysis, Twenge persistently brings everything down to a single cause.

In her account, the key historical moment is around 2012, where she identifies abrupt shifts in several measures of young people’s behaviour, attitudes and personality traits (although when you look closely at her data, the picture is actually a little more complicated). It’s at this point, she argues, that young people become significantly less interested in going out of the house to meet others, more likely to suffer from mental health problems, more concerned about safety, and so on. And, she argues, it’s also at this point that smartphones start to become more or less compulsory. So there’s the explanation! Even by the dismal standards of most media effects research, this is astonishingly spurious: once again, correlation is taken as evidence of causality, and everything is traced to a singular, all-powerful cause.

TV benefits your children

Twenge’s arguments also fit neatly into the current preoccupation with ‘screen time’. Of course, this is a very old debate, but the proliferation of digital screens seems to have kicked it back into life. The question of how much time children should spend with screens is rarely absent from parenting magazines and online forums; and all sorts of so-called experts – not to mention organisations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Australian government – have weighed in with their recommendations. In the UK, we even have an absurd version of the ‘Five a Day’ plan for healthy eating now being applied to social media use by the government’s Children’s Commissioner.

Yet the evidence base for such recommendations is highly dubious, and much of the research seems to be based on very questionable assumptions. As Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross have argued, the value of screen time is not something that can be arbitrarily measured by the clock: it seems blindingly obvious, but it depends on what you watch, why you watch and who you watch with.

The problem here isn’t just to do with evidence, however. Framing the problem in terms of ‘mental health’ – and especially in relation to young people – inevitably defines and limits the discussion in particular ways. It reduces a complex, multi-faceted social and cultural phenomenon – in this case, the rise of social media – to a matter of individual psychology. It implicitly stigmatizes the most avid users of these media, as somehow seduced or narcotized or addicted. And in the process, it places the responsibility for dealing with the ‘problem’ back onto young people themselves, or onto their parents, who need to be shamed into regulating and controlling them more effectively.

In terms of media research, this approach remains trapped in the simplistic logic of cause-and-effect. This approach typically assumes that media have impact on children’s lives, as if from outside, rather than being embedded within everyday social life. It confines our discussion of young people and media to a binary distinction between risks and benefits – in which we have to assess whether the media are ‘good for children’ or ‘bad for them’. It fails to differentiate between the different things that people might do with these media, nor does it really account for why they might do them: people – and children in particular – are seen to be entirely without agency, subject to powers that are beyond their control.


Using social media can certainly be oppressive and intrusive. But there are much bigger issues at stake here, to do with the competitiveness and insecurity of all our lives, which cannot be reduced to a straightforward matter of the effects of ‘bad technology’. In posing the issues in such individualistic terms, we run the risk of ignoring the more fundamental political and economic questions about these media, and about ‘digital capitalism’ more broadly – as well as the broader social and political dimensions of the issue of mental health.

Let me be absolutely clear. I am not suggesting that there is no reason to be concerned about young people’s mental health. Nor am I suggesting that social media have nothing to do with this, or that the whole debate is just another ‘media panic’. Excessive social media use might sometimes be a symptom of mental health problems, although it seems much less likely to be a primary cause in itself. And of course all of us (not just young people) need to learn to manage these media in our daily lives.

However, what I am saying is that we need to be much more careful about how we define these issues, and about the evidence that is used to evaluate them. The concern with screens and ‘mental health’ might provide opportunities to move the discussion of children’s use of social media forward, beyond the narrow focus on risk and harm. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening so far.