In writing this web book, there were two goals that we wanted to achieve:
#1: We wanted to encourage parents to enable their child, age-appropriate, to engage online in a safe and secure way based upon good evidence-based research, and
#2: Help parents to achieve goal #1
This is one reason why we have adopted Professor Sonia Livingstone & Professor Mariya Stoilova concept of the 4C’s to online risk https://bit.ly/3cuNzaG
and what we as parents and caregivers can do to minimize these risks
Sociologist Dr. David Finkelhor defines Juvenoia as,
“the exaggerated fear or hostility directed by an older generation towards youth culture that causes a moral panic”.
Juvenoia is nothing new, in 400 BC the philosopher Plato stated, “….writing will cease to exercise memory because people will not rely on that which is written.”, in 1876 the new tech device called a phone was demonized, in 1889 electricity and the lightbulb were seen to be an “unrestrained demon”, in 1895 bicycles were believed to cause a health concern known as “bicycle face” in women. In 1907, teddy bears, yes teddy bears, were labeled by the church as a “horrible monstrosity” that’ll destroy humanity, and that this new toy would ruin young girls’ developing maternal instincts and lead us to a terrible fate. In the 1930’s psychiatrists believed that radio, and even too much reading, would ruin the moral fabric of teens. In the 1940s, the medical community believed that some comic books, like Batman and Robin, would promote homosexuality in teens. Then in the 1950s, it was Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Rock & Roll that would ruin the moral fabric of teens. In the 1960s, it was television. In the 1980s, it was a board game called Dungeons and Dragons. Today, it’s smartphones and video games that are going to ruin the moral fabric of our youth. Here’s a great resource that looks at juvenoia and moral panic throughout the ages https://bit.ly/3iIEfmM
As Professor Shapiro of Temple University stated in 2019,
“Kids aren’t losing themselves in their devices but potentially finding themselves. What’s more, they’re doing exactly what generations of kids have long done by immersing themselves in the toys and objects of the moment that reflect the society they inhabit, and which will help prepare them for the future”.
We couldn’t agree more with Professor Shapiro’s statement. Most parents reading this web book were born and raised in one of the above-noted generations, and we would argue that most of us are doing ok. We would suggest that this generation of teens is going to be ok as well.
Juvenoia is also a catalyst for what psychologist Dr. Odgers in 2019 called a “parental moral panic”. As Dr. Odgers stated,
“We’re all looking in the wrong direction. The real threat isn’t smartphones, it’s the campaign of misinformation and the generation of fear among parents and educators.”
A good example of a parental moral panic, the “MoMo Challenge” that went viral in early 2019. What was the MoMo challenge, according to Snopes Dot Com.
“…a form of cyberbullying prevalent on platforms such as WhatsApp and YouTube, through which children receive anonymous threatening messages tied to pictures of ‘Momo,’ an unrelated sculpture of a grinning figure with dark hair and bulging eyes created by a Japanese special effect company. The ‘Momo’ messages allegedly compelled youngsters to engage in perilous activities such as taking pills, stabbing other people, and even killing themselves.”
First, and most importantly, this challenge was a hoax that went viral. The MoMo challenge first surfaced in late 2016, but in early 2019 it resurfaced in many parent blogs online. The Momo challenge became such a perceived safety concern to teens, that schools and even some police departments sent warnings home to parents to warn them about the danger of Momo. It is important to note that some really good investigative reporting found that there HAS NOT BEEN ONE CREDIBLE DEATH associated with this challenge, www.netfamilynews.org/about-momo-dealing-with-viral-media-scares but because of the internet, many believed that hundreds of children had taken their lives, or self-harmed, because of MoMo. What really made this challenge dangerous was how parents fanned the flames of moral panic and juvenoia, based upon inaccurate information, that social media can often propagate and spread at lightning speed online.
Was there a concern for younger kids online who were coming across inaccurate information related to the MoMo Challenge? Yes, especially If a child did not have the critical thinking skills to recognize when a video is clearly promoting absurd and disturbing content that is not based upon fact. If a young person accidentally or purposely saw this “spoofed” challenge, it could have been emotionally and psychologically disturbing. Kids not knowing any better, combined with the moral panic narrative of adults, based upon false information, created the perfect onlife juvenoia storm. Parents should have been using the MoMo challenge as a teachable moment for their kids, rather than a frightening moment. MoMo was a great example of why youth, and even adults, need to think more critically about what they encounter online, and why it is important to always ask themselves, “Is this real?”
We truly understand the concerns parents had over the MoMo Challenge given the unjustifiable attention it had been given in the news, but adults have to be very careful that we too don’t get caught up in the moral panic these hoaxes often unjustifiably illicit.
Parental Moral Panic and Mental Wellness:
Another great example of Juvenoia and how it can spread a parental moral panic – clickbait news headlines about how technology can negatively affect a teen’s mental wellness. We believe it is important to note, good academic peer-reviewed research is still in its infancy specific to this topic. However, over the past few years, we have been seeing some really good peer-reviewed research that is shining a light, and providing more insight on this issue, that we want to bring to your attention.
In journalism, there is a maxim known as “Betteridge’s Law” which states, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” Sensational headlines, known as clickbait, often pose a moral panic-based question in hopes that readers and content providers will share the content with others to increase its circulation. Some examples of headlines, “Can cellphones cause horns to grow on your head” or “Can TikTok Videos Cause Tic-Like Behaviours in Teens?”
Most parents believe, usually based upon anecdotal opinions reported in the media, but not supported by good peer-reviewed research, that social media is causing all kinds of teen mental wellness issues. Really? How about a 2018 study of 350,000 teens from across the UK and the United States conducted by Oxford University that found,
“Social media use has a nearly negligible effect if adolescent psychological wellbeing (.04% variance) when it comes to depressive symptoms, suicidal ideations, relationship problems or pro-social relationships” (picture circle graph)
Or what about a 2018 study conducted by the Department of Psychology, Brock University and Redeemer University College in the United Stated that found,
“Results indicate that among both samples, social media use did not predict depressive symptoms over time for males of females. However, greater depressive symptoms predicted more frequent social media use only among adolescent girls. Thus, while it is often assumed that social media may lead to depressive symptoms, our results indicate that this assumption may be unwarranted”
Or what about a 2019 University of North Carolina study that found,
“…technology use did not predict later mental health symptoms. Adolescents reported mental health was also not worse on days when they reported spending more versus less time on technology”
Further, the North Carolina study found,
“Adolescents at a higher risk for mental health problems also exhibited no signs of increased risk for mental health problems on higher technology use days”
Or what about another academic 2019 study by Jensen, George, Russell and Odgers that found.
“Adolescents’ technology use did not predict later mental-health symptoms.” and “Adolescents at higher risk for mental health problems also exhibited no signs of increased risk for mental health problems on higher technology use days.”
Or what about another academic November 2020 study by Heather Shaw, David A. Ellis, Kristoffer Geyer, Brittany I. Davidson, Fenja V. Ziegler, and Alice Smith that found:
“We conclude that addressing people’s appraisals including worries about their technology usage is likely to have greater mental health benefits than reducing their overall smartphone use. Reducing general smartphone use should therefore not be a priority for public health interventions at this time.”
In fact, the authors of this study stated further in this article that expands on their research https://bit.ly/33BnHXa
Here’s a 2021 peer-reviewed longitudinal study, “Social media use intensity, social media use problems, and mental health among adolescents: Investigating directionality and mediating process” https://bit.ly/3o98HXQ This study found social media use intensity (how long a youth is online) and mental health were not associated in any direction; suggesting harmful effects of social media use are limited.
Here’s another 2021 peer-reviewed study that was published in February that stated in its conclusions, “overall, there was little to no evidence showing that technology is becoming more negatively associated with mental health over time” https://psyarxiv.com/nv5qj
Here’s another 2021 peer-reviewed longitudinal study that was published in April that stated in its conclusion, “… results do not support policies intended to encourage or discourage media use because of effects on well-being.” In other words, this study strengthens many other studies mentioned in this web-book that different types of social media have very little effect on well-being https://psyarxiv.com/zgb5y
Here’s another 2021 peer-reviewed Oxford University study that was published in May that found “little association” between technology use and mental health. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2167702621994549
Or how about this 2019 report that was published by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, that discusses how social media can actually benefit those with mental wellness challenges
This 2019 report is further supported by a research paper released in March 2021 by Common Sense Media, that can be located here: https://bit.ly/3tJtTGZ
In an August 2021 research paper titled, “Positive and Negative Online Experiences and Loneliness in Peruvian Adolescents During the COVID-19 Lockdown” https://bit.ly/2XkiaEb the researchers found:
“There has been this negative discourse about screen time causing loneliness and depression. But our findings provide more nuance and show that, when used positively, online interactions are actually associated with less loneliness. This is especially true when teenagers have no other option but to connect with their friends online”
In September 2015, the US National Institute of Health launched the largest longitudinal (long-term) study – approximately 12,000 youth, specific to brain development and child and adolescent health. This research is known as the “Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study” or the “ABCD Study”. According to the NIH, the ABCD study “integrates structural and functional brain imaging; genetic testing; and neuropsychological, behavioral, and other health assessments of study participants conducted over a 10-year period, yielding a substantial amount of information about healthy adolescent brain development.”
A part of this study is to look at how “screen time” may be linked to challenges surrounding sleep, mental health, behaviour, and friendships. Upon the launch of this study, it was identified by many to be the gold standard when it comes to multi-disciplinary research that would help parents and caregivers understand the effects of technology on youth brain development. This study is extremely important given that many who are tech adverse believe that tech and screen time is negatively impacting the emotional, psychological, physical, and social development of our kids, especially those entering adolescents, and was “changing” the brain of our kids in a negative way.
After six years, the researchers have published their findings thus far in a peer-reviewed paper that was just published in September 2021:
“Both weekday and weekend total screen time are moderately associated with greater behavioral problems including ADHD, poor academic performance and poor sleep quantity and quality. Conversely, screen time is positively associated with the quantity and quality of peer relationships. The effect of screen time on those outcome measures typically does not depend on sex. Observed effect sizes are small (<2% variance explained), with SES contributing much more to the variance in outcomes. Though these associations should be monitored and examined further as this study cohort ages in mid- and late- adolescence, our results are in line with a recent review https://acamh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jcpp.13190 . It seems that screen time itself is not strongly associated with adverse outcomes in 9- and 10- year old children.”
The last sentence is very important, “It seems that screen time itself is not strongly associated with adverse outcomes in 9- and 10- year old children.”
In fact, one of the study’s researchers, Katie Paulich, stated in an interview:
“Our results, found no association between screens and a child’s depression or anxiety. Greater amounts of screen time were associated with stronger peer relationships for both boys and girls – both have more male and female friends. Social screen use may drive that association; video gaming, for instance, is a social activity that seems to foster more friendships. So do social media and texting.”
Now did this study also find some challenges? – yes it did. Again, a quote from Katie Paulich:
“More screen time predicted higher levels of attention problems, worse sleep, poorer academic performance, and an increase in aggression and misbehavior. Taken at face value, these contrasting positive and negative correlations are confusing. Is screen time good or bad? Perhaps neither one: When looking at the strength of the correlations, we see only very modest associations. That is, any association between screen time and the various outcomes, whether good or bad, is so small it’s unlikely to be important at a clinical level.”
Those who promote the narrative that tech does increase aggression, attention problems, sleep challenges, and academic performance will point to this paragraph and say, “Ah-ha, told you so”. However, they will neglect the last sentence which is most important for context, “That is, any association between screen time and the various outcomes, whether good or bad, is so small it’s unlikely to be important at a clinical level.”
In an October 2021 meta-analysis paper called “Screen media and mental health” https://bit.ly/3kSjAyi the researchers looked at 33 separate studies from 2015-2019 and reported:
“Across studies, evidence suggests that screen media plays little role in mental health concerns. In particular, there was no evidence that screen media contribute to suicidal ideation or other mental health outcomes. This result was also true when investigating smartphones or social media specifically. Overall, as has been the case for previous media such as video games, concerns about screen time and mental health are not based in reliable data.”
In late 2021, there was a leak of Facebook internal documents that revealed that their platforms, especially Instagram, increased rates or anxiety and depression, especially among teen girls. This revelation caught significant media attention and was held out to be the smoking gun by some special interest groups to prove that social media had a direct negative effect on youth mental health, especially when it came to depression. It should be noted that this leak did not include the research used by Facebook (now Meta) to support the statement in the leaked document.
As Dr. Candice Odgers (developmental psychologist with a specialty in adolescent mental health) stated, “we have to guard against the increasing young female vulnerability narrative” Here are two very recent longitudinal evidence-based peer-reviewed research studies that support Dr. Odgers statement:
A May 2021 Swedish longitudinal study https://bit.ly/3HvTjjB , where the researchers followed 3,501 14-15 year old girls for two years found:
“We found between-person rather than within-person positive associations between social media use and symptoms of mental ill health. This suggests that social media use may serve as an indicator rather than a determinant of risk of mental health problems among adolescents.
In a 2019 Canadian-based longitudinal study https://bit.ly/3QzBvIH , that followed 594 adolescents for two years found:
“…social-media use did not predict depressive symptoms over time for males or females. However, greater depressive symptoms predicted more frequent social-media use only among adolescent girls. Thus, while it is often assumed that social-media use may lead to depressive symptoms, our results indicate that this assumption may be unwarranted.”
Once again, the bulk of research supports the fact that a balanced approach to screen time is “not likely to yield dire consequences” in most youth. Yes, there are some “problematic” contraindications to the unbalanced use of technology, such as sleep deprivation, that “some” youth may experience (most do not) that parents need to be aware of. We speak to these challenges in our presentations and in this webbook.
There has also been some very current research just released in January 2022 https://bit.ly/3G5uCs7 that found that there appears to be a slight correlation between time spent online to elevated negative health indicators. The conclusion of this research:
“The present study found that social media use is associated with multiple indicators of physical health. Given the prevalence of social media in daily lives and the importance of social relationships to physical health, we call for additional research to examine the relationship between social media use and physical health by utilizing diverse methodologies.”
However, we also must pay attention to some of the limitations of this study as identified by the authors:
“This study has some limitations. First, the cross-sectional design of this study limits our ability to make causal or temporal inferences about the relation between social media use and physical health. For example, we cannot rule out the possibility that people with undermined health may use social media more (e.g., to seek health information or distraction from their dysphoria). Thus, future research should consider using longitudinal or experimental designs to establish causal and temporal effects.
Second, the effect sizes found in this study are small (0.17 < βs < 0.20), although comparable to those typically found in studies on social media use and psychological well-being (−0.05 < rs < −0.15). Thus, it would be important to consider whether these effect sizes have clinical or practical significance.
Finally, this study documented an aggregate association between overall amount of social media use and physical health. Although focusing on the amount of social media use—the most commonly studied variable—allowed us to connect to extant literature, this broad metric does not provide any insight into how people use social media. Given that people use social media for a variety of reasons, and that the ways in which they use social media can also influence their well-being, future research should examine how the types of social media use may relate to health.”
It is medically well understood that any sedentary lifestyle can have a negative effect on our physical and mental health. This is why taking a balanced approach to the use of social media, which includes daily physical activity, is important. As you will read in the chapter on online gaming, professional e-gaming athletes understand how important physical fitness is in their sport to enhance their online performance.
Another narrative that we have heard – youth should be reading more books than reading online because it is better for their well-being. Is it? What about this January 2022 published peer-reviewed study https://go.nature.com/3FRMFll where they found:
” No effect of different types of media on well-being”
“It is often assumed that traditional forms of media such as books enhance well-being, whereas new media do not. However, we lack evidence for such claims and media research is mainly focused on how much time people spend with a medium, but not whether someone used a medium or not. We explored the effect of media use during one week on well-being at the end of the week, differentiating time spent with a medium and use versus nonuse, over a wide range of different media types: music, TV, films, video games, (e-)books, (digital) magazines, and audiobooks. Results from a six-week longitudinal study representative of the UK population 16 years and older (N = 2159) showed that effects were generally small; between-person relations but rarely within-person effects; mostly for use versus nonuse and not time spent with a medium; and on affective well-being, not life satisfaction.”
Or what about this large study https://bit.ly/3wMjhua released in January 2022 where they found:
“…. in our study integrated technology into their (teens) lives in ways that were not associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, or other poor health outcomes. Thus, the study findings indicate that most adolescents using technology do so in ways that do not lead to increased risk of negative health consequences.”
This research also supports the fact that parents who engage with their kids in their onlife world, through parental communication and parental participation, those youth are far less likely to be involved in less than desirable online behavioral outcomes. As one of the study’s authors Yalda Uhls, PhD, at UCLA stated, “family-engaged groups seemed to be doing just fine, with positive health and well-being indicators in relationship to technology,”
However, of note, this research also supports other research mentioned in this book, that those youth who are at most risk off line, are also more vulnerable to risk online.
One last important note about this study, the authors stated that this research also supports the fact that we need to move away from focusing on the amount of time youth spend online (screen time), and concentrate more on what they are doing with that time online. In fact, the researchers stated:
“We recommend a shift away from rules centered on screen time. Our evidence supports that household rules focused on content, communication, and coviewing were more likely to be associated with lower health risk and improved well-being”
Now to be fair, there are some academic researchers, such as psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge, author of the 2017 book “iGen”, who have conducted academic peer-reviewed research that provides a linkage between screen time and troubling signs of mental wellness. https://bit.ly/2Z6lFvM and https://bit.ly/3x4YoZp
Dr. Twenge’s research has shown that since the introduction of the smartphone, there has also come an increase in rates of depression being reported in youth. Our question is, “could this be because it is more socially acceptable for youth to talk openly about mental wellness challenges with parents and mental wellness professionals? According to Dr. Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, “Even ten years ago, the topic of mental wellness was shamed upon and something that nobody spoke about”, especially youth.
Another 2018 research paper https://bit.ly/2YNqkFX found”
“The magnitude of association between social media use and depressive symptoms was larger for girls than for boys”
“Our findings highlight the potential pitfalls of lengthy social media use for young people’s mental health”
In an April 2022 peer-reviewed research paper titled, “Time spent online and children’s self-reported life satisfaction in Norway: The socio-ecological perspective” https://bit.ly/3O6ac6U researchers contradict Dr Twenge’s early research where they found:
“We actually find the opposite, that is to say a positive correlation between the self-reported quality of life of adolescents and the amount of time they spend online,”
We think it is important to note that the researchers stated “association” not “causation”- this is an important distinction. The questions that should be asked are, “Is social media the primary source for mental wellness challenges, or is the use of social media a maladaptive coping strategy for underlying conditions such as depression or stress that can lead to problematic behaviour?” We believe that the most current research is showing the latter. In a 2021 research study by Common Sense Media, Hopelab, and the California Health Care Foundation called “Coping With Covid-19: How Young People Use Digital Media To Manage Their Mental Health” they found the following:
- 43% of teens stated using social media made them feel better when depressed, stressed, or anxious
- 40% stated that it made no difference in their mental health, and
- 17% stated social media made them feel worse
Of interest, the 17% identified in the above-noted research was very congruent with the study done in 2018 called “Social Media Use and Adolescent Mental Health: Findings From the UK Millennium Cohort Study” that we mentioned earlier, that found a 15% increase in depressive symptoms amongst girls who use social media for an extended period of time.
Maybe Age Can Have Developmental Sensitivity To Social Media Use & Life Satisfaction
A 2022 study headed by Dr. Amy Orben at Oxford University (someone who we highly respect and have been following for years) was just published that shows initial, non-causal, but suggestive evidence of developmental sensitivity to social media use. https://www.amyorben.com/pdf/2022_OrbenEtAl_NC.pdf
In this study, the researchers found:
- Some Girls may experience a negative link at 11-13, boys when they are 14-15,
- Increased social media use might also affect life satisfaction at aged 19, but
- Adolescents with lower life satisfaction consistently use social media more.
The study actually found what is commonly known in psychology as the “Goldilocks Effect” – some people who use social media a lot tend to be more unhappy, some people who never use it, or use it very little, tend to be more unhappy, and those who take a balanced and moderate approach tend to be the happiest.
After reading this study, we reached out to Dr. Andrew Przybylski via Twitter (one of the researchers in the study who we also highly respect and follow) and asked them:
“Was the type of social media use considered? In other words, did the research provide insight into what type of social media led to the decrease in life satisfaction in these age groups?”
Dr. Andrew Przybylski’s reply:
“Hi Darren, no, and the data were collected over a wide range of years so it’s also possible that the share of any given platform at any given age varied over the time span of data collection.”
Our question was important because it has been our anecdotal experience having presented to over 540,000 teens, that youth under the age of 15 are primarily using social media as consumers as a way to socially interact with peers and others their age, whereas those over the age of 15 are using social media more as creators and producers.
In an article specific to this study Dr. Orben stated:
“I wouldn’t say that there is a specific age group we should all be worried about. We should all be reflecting on our social media use and encouraging those conversations but we need to understand what is driving these changes across age groups and between genders. There are very large individual differences, so there may be certain teenagers that benefit from their use of social media whilst at the same time, someone else is harmed.” https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2022-03-28-negative-impact-social-media-affects-girls-and-boys-different-ages-study
Dr Przybylski, another researcher in the study stated:
“This doesn’t constitute advice to parents that their children should abstain from social media,” says Przybylski. “It’s clear from the data that abstinence isn’t necessarily great, either.”
Of interest to us is how current research surrounding digital peer aggression (cyberbullying) shows that the frequency of cyberbullying is higher in younger teens compared to older teens, especially among those who identify as female. The cyberbullying research also supports the fact that targets of digital peer aggression lead to a decrease in life satisfaction which is reflected in this Oxford study.
So, what are the takeaways for us from this new Oxford research:
- More research is needed specific to developmental sensitivity to social media use & life satisfaction. We are hopeful that this study will catapult further research and why social media vendors like Meta, Snapchat, TikTok need to open up their data for independent academic peer review.
- This research is providing insight that there may be “some” teens at “certain” ages that “may” be more vulnerable when it comes to less than desirable developmental sensitivity to social media use & life satisfaction.
- Based on this research, and the fact that we cannot yet predict which youth are most at risk, we believe that it is reasonable for parents and caregivers to ensure they balance the type of social media and apps used by youth under the age of 15yrs specific to consumption vs creation and tech usage. Our article “Creating A Digital Onlife Balance” can help with this parental responsibility and is something that we speak about in Chapter 9.
Tech, Neuroplasticity, and The Brain
As a family, we became very aware of how infant and youth brains are very malleable to environmental demands, and thus, the brain can rewire itself to learn new skills. A part of this journey was a book recommended to us by our neurologist called, “The Brain That Changes Itself” https://amzn.to/3xYsj9C which dives deeply into the science behind what is called neuroplasticity. Because the human brain is malleable, especial amongst youth, repetition of skills can induce long-term changes in the structure of the brain https://www.nature.com/articles/nn.2412
So, what does this have to do with technology – research is starting to emerge showing that there may be an association between the amount of time a person spends on the Internet, what they are doing with that time (passive vs active), and how the amount of time spent online could cause changes in the brain.
According to this emerging research, there is a possibility that heavy online use could either have a positive or negative effect on brain structure, function and therefore cognitive processes depending upon age. As the above-noted study stated:
“This may be of particular relevance to the developing brains of children and adolescents, as many cognitive processes (particularly those relevant to higher executive functions and social cognition) are not entirely innate, but rather are strongly influenced by environmental factors” (like the amount of time spent on the internet and social media).
This 2019 study also found – heavy use of the Internet and social media (they didn’t define what “heavy use” was) could be influencing our brain’s cognitive process in a negative way specific to:
- Sustained focus, and
- memory processing
Both of these can lead to memory deficits where a user can have the challenge of deciding what information is important enough to remember. https://bit.ly/3xWpRR9
However, the study also stated:
“the opposite may be true in older adults experiencing cognitive decline, for whom the online environment may provide a new source of positive cognitive stimulation. For instance, Internet searching engaged more neural circuitry than reading text pages in Internet savvy older adults (aged 55‐76 years). Furthermore, experimental studies have found that computer games available online and through smartphones can be used to attenuate aging‐related cognitive decline. Thus, the Internet may present a novel and accessible platform for adults to maintain cognitive function throughout old age. Building from this, successful cognitive aging has previously been shown to be dependent upon learning and deploying cognitive strategies, which can compensate for aging‐related decline in “raw” memory capacities. This has previously been referred to as optimizing internal cognitive processes (e.g., through mnemonic strategies), or taking advantage of cognitive offloading in traditional formats (list making, transactive memory, etc.). Nonetheless, as Internet‐based technologies become more deeply integrated with our daily cognitive processing (through smartphones, wearables, etc.), digital natives could feasibly develop forms of “online cognition” in the aging brain, whereby older adults can increasingly take advantage of web‐based transactive memory and other emerging online processes to fulfil (or even exceed)” the typical capacities of a younger brain.
Our takeaway from this emerging field of research:
- It appears that heavy “passive” use of technology, the internet, and social media by youth may cause changes in brain structure, function, and cognitive processing ability. Having said this, we do not yet know if this will have long-term positive or negative consequences, but it’s enough of a concern that it should be flagged by parents.
- The opposite may be true in older adults experiencing cognitive decline, for whom the online environment may provide a new source of positive cognitive stimulation
- Yes, it appears that the use of technology can affect human brain malleability, especially among youth, repetition of skills can induce long-term changes in the structure of the brain. No matter if it is the use of https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19820707/ or learning a new motor skill like juggling https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25542777/
Once again, this emerging research specific to tech, neuroplasticity, and the brain confirms our message throughout this book – It’s all about balanced use of technology, and how it is being used (passive vs active) when it comes to the emotional, psychological, physical, and social well-being our kids. Too much of anything is not good for you; it doesn’t matter if it is food, exercise, or the use of technology!
Again, we are not saying that social media does not play a role in the mental wellness of teens. What we are saying is that it may play a multifactorial role, both good and bad, depending upon the teen. In their book, ” Digital Media and Child and Adolescent Mental Health”, Dr’s O’Reilly, Dogra, Levine, and Donoso stated:
“There are populations who have faced adversity or multiple adversities, or become of certain personal characteristics may not have the cognitive, social, or emotional maturity to handle digital risks
- Looked-after children (those in care; fostered, adopted, or in residential care)
- Children with mental health conditions
- Children with disabilities or other forms of special educational needs, or intellectual disabilities
- Children who have experienced trauma
- Children who have experienced domestic violence or abuse”
In other words, youth who may be struggling with the above noted, are more likely to have negative experiences online as well. Our friends Dr. Justin Patchin and Dr. Sammer Hinduja with the Cyberbullying Research Center have stated:
“the harm experienced online by those who are already vulnerable tends to be of greater severity than harm experienced by their peers.”
Some who promote that technology, especially cellphones, is the reason why we have seen an increase in mental wellness and suicidal ideations challenges amongst teens, point to the fact that the iPhone was first released in 2007 and then became popular with teens in the mid-2000’s. These same groups use a statistical graph from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US to prove their point in an attempt to draw causation. These same groups only show us a partial snapshot of the graph that starts around the 2007/09 mark. However, what they fail to do is to show you the full graph that started in 1991.
As Dr. Tyler Black (Medical Director of the CAPE Unit at BC Children’s Hospital and BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, Suicidologist, and specialist in Paediatric Emergency Psychiatry) stated in a tweet:
“2017 was lower than 2015, and 2019 is lower than 1999. the idea that media, social media, technology, or whatever else luddites hate is strongly correlated with increasing suicidal thinking in kids is ahistorical and dishonest.”
Once again, Dr Black, a true expert in the field of youth and suicidality, stated that when it comes to youth in 2021:
“We can firmly paint our kids in the “average position” of suicidality in the past 30 years.”
Our message to parents and caregivers is, don’t let juvenoic moral panic clickbait headlines such as “Cellphones Cause Suicide and Mental Health Problems In Youth” prevent you from integrating technology, in a “balanced” way, into your child’s life.
Sometimes, when it comes to difficult and challenging issues, such as suicide, it’s easier to look for the easiest thing to blame rather than the fact that often the causes are much more complex and multifactorial. Today, that thing is technology and cellphones.
Over the past 24 months of COVID, we have read several articles in the media about how the increased use of tech during the pandemic by young adults has had a negative effect on their mental wellness. Lots of anecdotal opinions were used to support this belief given that we had no good evidence-based peer-reviewed research to either support or debunk such a claim. Well, we now have the research that was just released in January 2022 https://psyarxiv.com/ucsh6/ “Does objectively-measured social media or smartphone use predict depression, anxiety, or social isolation among young adults?” that provides a contra opinion to this belief.
We love reading academic research, which to most is like watching paint dry. However, we think the research mentioned in this webbook is important, given that it helps to guide parents and adults when it comes to understanding both the positives and negatives of social media and technology. Although we would love it if all parents would read the research, two important takeaways from this January 2022 study are:
“We found limited evidence that three distinct yet commonly-investigated aspects of digital technology use—smartphone use duration (“screen time”) and frequency (i.e., “pickups”), and social media use duration—exhibited meaningful prospective associations with three commonly-investigated aspects of psychological distress—depression, anxiety, and social isolation. By meaningful we are not strictly referring to statistical significance but also practical significance.”
“Our study provides robust evidence that, at a time of elevated digital technology use and psychological distress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, fluctuations in digital technology use did not meaningfully contribute to fluctuations in psychological distress among young adults.”
Now, there will always be an exception to the rule, but for most young adults this COVID-based tech study provides evidence that the increased use of social media and tech during COVID DID NOT cause an increase in depression, anxiety, or social isolation among youth adults. Just saying…..
Another April 2022 study from Norway https://bit.ly/3O6ac6U surrounding teens and screen time found:
“Despite public discourses highlighting the negative consequences of time spent online (TSO) for children’s well-being, Norwegian children (aged 9–16 years) use the Internet more than other European children and score higher on self-reported life satisfaction (SRLS). To explore the possibility that TSO might contribute to high life satisfaction or other underlying explanatory factors, we investigate the relationship between TSO and SRLS in Norway while also accounting for how individual, family, school, and broader social circumstances influence this relationship. Countering prevailing discourses, we find a positive relationship between TSO and SRLS, which remains positive and significant even after a wider range of variables are accounted for. By explaining the circumstances under which TSO has a positive effect on SRLS, this article provides evidence of the complex role that digital technology plays in the lives of children. It also provides a critique of the often simplistic arguments found in public discourses around children’s digital media use.”
As one of the researchers of this report, Niamh Ní Bhroin, stated, “We actually find the opposite, that is to say, a positive correlation between the self-reported quality of life of adolescents and the amount of time they spend online,”
Are there emotional, psychological, physical, and social challenges associated with onlife problematic behavior? Yes, there are, and we will speak to some of these challenges that parents and teens need to be aware of in this webbook. Newer research is showing us that digital affordance, through the use of algorithms used by some social media platforms, can undermine mental wellness thus increasing exposure to online harmful content for some youth who are already at risk. However, don’t believe all of the hype associated with social media, and its negative effects on mental wellness, as being “the” cause of this decline that is pushed by some special interest groups. As Dr. Sonia Livingstone stated, ” The relationship between digital life and mental health is best characterized by a complex mix of positive and negative influences varying over time both within and between individuals – conditioned and moderated by personal characteristics and cultural, historical, and socio-economic factors.” https://bit.ly/36ecRY5
Again, we do believe that tech can play a role in youth mental wellness in today’s world, both negative and positive, but it is more nuanced and multifactorial than just tech. Those other multifactorial challenges that have been identified by experts in the mental health field include:
- Instability at school
- Increased family separation and divorce rates
- Parent/caregiver Job Loss
- Increased rates of child abuse
- Housing crisis
- Increased levels of child poverty in North America
- Lack of prevention and early intervention treatment and counseling for youth mental health
- Inflation and the cost of living in the home
- Student debt
- Teens who have lost one or more caregivers, close family members, and close friends during COVID
Another interesting trend – how some media will actually misrepresent or skew the findings of a research study to create what is known as “clickbait”. A good example was a study that was reported in a Canadian newspaper that stated:
“Children who have more than two hours of screen time daily are more likely to display ADHD symptoms, study says.”
This clickbait headline intimates a “causation” that screen time can cause ADHD. The actual title of the scientific article was “Screen-time is associated with inattention problems in preschoolers: Results from the CHILD birth cohort study.” Contextually a BIG difference! In fact, nowhere in the actual research do the authors use the word “cause.” They specifically identified what they believe to be a correlation to inattention problems. Again, a BIG difference!
I’m also confident that when these researchers submitted their study for publication in 2018, they were unaware of research by Oxford University on this topic that had been published; one of the largest longitudinal cohort studies of its kind. In fact, we could not find the Oxford study in their references. Why is this important, because the Oxford study found:
“examining data from over 350,000 teenagers and parents in the UK and USA. At most, only 0.4% of adolescent wellbeing is related to screen use”
Also, in the media article, it was reported that this new research supports the Canadian Pediatrics’ position on screen time, but yet later in the article it stated,
“Michelle Ponti, a London, Ont., a pediatrician who chairs the Canadian Pediatric Society’s digital health task force and was not involved in the new study, said some of its findings should be taken with a grain of salt.”
Why did Mr. Ponti say this, because the British Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, the first pediatrics organization in the world to suggest screen time limits, which Canada adopted https://bit.ly/3OAW6L9, had now changed its position on screen time, based upon current research, as did many other pediatric organizations around the world? It’s not about how much time your child spends online, it’s what they are doing with that time that is most important, it’s all about balance, and this is something we will be speaking to in-depth later in this e-book.
So, what does this all mean? Based on the best research out there to date, it appears that screen time has little effect on the mental health functioning of the majority of youth. Screen time doesn’t cause ADHD. What good research shows us is that we are born with ADHD. Having said this, parents should be alive to the fact that they should not be using technology as a “digital babysitter” or “digital pacifier”, which only acts like digital bubble gum for the brain. At young ages, organize screen time into reasonable limits that meet your family’s needs and beliefs, and use it as an adjunct to learning. Again, Sesame Street (positive learning) vs Sponge Bob Square Pants (bubble gum for the brain) analogy applies.
Even some social media safety advocates are guilty of this trend. As an example, in 2019 a social media safety advocate stated publicly,
“1 in 5 teens is being cyberstalked. It takes only 2 minutes and a password for an abuser to install a tracking app on their partner’s phone”
This same advocate attached a CBC video, specific to how spyware was being installed by abusers on teen phones to cyberstalk their victims, even though the video was specific to adults and not teens. To further support their claim that 1 in 5 teens was being cyberstalked in Canada, they quoted a Stats Canada Study.
Given our background in law enforcement, academic research, and social media safety advocacy, we had concerns about the accuracy of the stat that this expert quoted. We decided to actually read the entire Statistics Canada report that can be found here:
The report found that 17% of the 15 to 29-year-old respondents were cyberbullied or cyberstalked.
As we continued to read this report, Statistics Canada found that of this 17%, a smaller cohort of 64% stated that they had been cyberstalked. Of this number, only 9.8% were under the age of 18 years of age.
So, given the above-noted numbers, the statement “1 in 5 teens in Canada are being cyberstalked” is factually incorrect, and extremely misleading. It is also our belief that attaching the CBC video, which was specific to adults and not teens, was also misleading.
Teen digital relationship abuse via computers, cellphones, text messaging, and social networking websites are increasingly being used to monitor, threaten, and harass relationship partners, and is something that we speak to in our high school presentations. In fact, Dr. Sameer Hinduja and Dr. Justin Patching with the Cyberbullying Research Center found that 11% of 12 to 17-year-old teens reported that they had experienced some form of digital relationship abuse. PrevNet, a Canadian research group based at the University of Ottawa reported, 17.5% of Gr 9-10 students identified to have found themselves involved in this type of abuse. So, is it a reality that spyware could be used by teen abusers? Yes. Having said this, it is a rarity! This was another great example of how disinformation can fuel the flames of parental moral panic (juvenoia), specific to a teens’ use of technology.
Many media sources that talk about fake challenges, or concerning mental wellness research surrounding the use of technology, often fail to provide any primary source, or good evidence-based peer-reviewed research, to support their claims. Before you believe a clickbait headline, make sure you do your research first. Also, remember that correlation does not always equal causation. Some very reputable sources that we turn to include: Dr. Sameer Hinduja and Dr. Justin Patchin – Directors at the Cyberbullying Research Center in the USA, Julie Inman Grant – Australian eSafety Commissioner, Dr. Cynthia Baxter – Forensic Psychiatrist, Dr. Patrick Markey – Director of the IR laboratory at Villanova University, Dr. Chris Ferguson – Psychologist, Mathew Johnson – Director of Education for MediaSmarts Canada, Dr. Margaret Newbury – sexual health educator and counselor, Dr. Jordan Shapiro – Temple University, Dr. Andrew Przybylski – Director Oxford Internet Institute, Dr. Danah Byod – Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data & Society, Dr. Rachel Kowert- Research Director for Take This and Dr. Sonia Livingstone – Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE -Dr. Tyler Black (Canadian) , Medical Director of the CAPE Unit at BC Children’s Hospital and BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, Suicidologist, and specialist in Paediatric Emergency Psychiatry, and Dr Amy Orben – College Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge.
MediaSmarts Canada is a reputable resource that we turn to for information and here is an interview we did with their Director of Education Matthew Johnson: