The perfect Quantity of Screen Time for Teens

New research from the Department of Sociology in Trinity College Dublin has found further proof of a relationship between online engagement and mental wellbeing in teenagers. The research, published recently within the journal ‘Computers in Human Behaviour’, contributes to mounting international evidence on the dangers of high amounts of digital media use.

Additionally, they discovered that in today’s connected world low engagement with digital media is also related to poor mental health outcomes for adolescents who cut back time online than their peers. This finding props up ‘goldilocks’ hypothesis — that digital media use at moderate levels is not intrinsically harmful and there's a point between low and use that's ‘just right’ for young adults.

This may be the very first time the ‘goldilocks’ theory continues to be examined in Irish teenagers/young adults. It is also the first study to try the integration of both some time and online behaviours when looking at associations between digital media and mental wellbeing.

Professor Richard Layte, Professor of Sociology and co-author around the paper, said:

“Evidence is mounting internationally that online engagement among adolescents may be damaging for mental well-being however the evidence is mixed. Our work provides fresh insights on the impact of digital engagement at the chronilogical age of 17/18 and also the results provide worrying evidence of real harms that require urgent action.”

“There's a simple narrative out there that more is worse. It is important to emphasise that online engagement has become an ordinary channel of social participation and non-use has consequences. Our findings also enhance the possibility that moderate me is essential in today’s digital world and that lower levels of online engagement carries its own risks. The questions for researchers are how much is simply too much and just how little is simply too little?”

The research, applying longitudinal data in the Growing Up in Ireland study, checked out the association between adolescent use of online engagement and mental wellbeing in over 6,000 young adults between your chronilogical age of 13 and again in the age of 17/18.

The researchers asked participants to report time they spent online along with the activities they involved in: online messaging, sharing of videos and photographs, school or college work, watching movies and hearing music. Mental wellbeing was assessed by questions investigating emotional, behavioural and peer issues.

The study characterised young person’s online behaviour based on period of time spent online as well as the types of online behaviours engaged in. Adjusting for prior psychiatric disorders and symptoms in the chronilogical age of 9 and 13, the research discovered that high engagement in digital media strongly predicted worse mental health outcomes for both boys and girls. Furthermore, low use of digital media was related to worse mental health for girls and boys and was also predictive of peer trouble for girls.

Dr Ross Brannigan, lead author of the study along with a former postdoctoral researcher in Trinity’s Department of Sociology, said:

“This research is novel in that it considers the significance of both time and online behaviours when examining associations between digital media and mental wellbeing. We found clear distinctions between groups spending similar time spent online, but differing within their behaviours online. This suggests the importance of considering both some time and behaviours online as well as the quality of those behaviours, for instance passive when compared with active behaviours, or the kinds of behaviours such as social, educational, entertainment.”

“Digital media an internet-based usage is really a controversial topic with regards to its impact on mental health, with no real consistency of results overall. While these answers are not causal or deterministic, our findings are an important first step on the path to revealing why these relationships exist. It will certainly be importance to construct on these bits of information and additional investigate WHYdigital media engagement may be related to mental wellbeing.”

This study belongs to the TeenPath Project, a collaborative project between your Department of Sociology in Trinity College Dublin and the Department of Public Health insurance and Epidemiology in The School of Population Health, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

1. Ross Brannigan, Carlos J. Gil-Hern√°ndez, Olivia McEvoy, Frances Cronin, Debbi Stanistreet, Richard Layte. Digital engagement and its connection to adverse psychiatric symptoms: A longitudinal cohort study utilizing latent class analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 2023; 133: 107290 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2023.107290