The amount of harm digital technologies cause to mental health in teenagers might just be overblown, according to a new paper out of Oxford University.

Published last week, the study examined longitudinal data from a combined 430,000 people aged between 10 and 15-years-old and found “little evidence” to support the idea that technology use has become more harmful over time.

The researchers were interested in viewing social media in comparison to what they saw as a long line of technologies – including the novel, radio dramas, television, and video games – which have sparked concern for their perceived negative effects on adolescents over the last century or so.

“When fears emerge about a new technology, worries about previous technologies are largely abandoned without an agreement on – or good data indicating – whether, why, or how the previous technologies were or were not harmful,” the paper says.

“Focus is instead redirected to the new technology of concern, along with the suggestion that it is more harmful because of technological advancement.”

Using the data from national surveys of adolescents in the US and UK, researchers compared mental health self-reports in relation to both television and device or social media use.

Surprisingly, they found self-reported measurements for depression had become “consistently less negative” for both television and social media use, suggesting the associations between depression and those technologies had actually decreased over time.

The association between technology and both behavioural problems and “suicidality” was stable over time – no increase or decrease – but the researchers did notice a slight uptick in the reporting of emotional problems in relation to social media that was not present for television.

Overall, the researchers called for longer studies into the negative effects of social media, and want to see more usage data handed over by social media giants like Facebook and TikTok.

“Concerns that technology is becoming both more prevalent in young people’s lives and likewise more harmful to their mental health have gained traction in recent years,” the paper said.

“If supported by empirical study, this idea would potentially suggest policy intervention.

“Although we found little evidence suggesting that technology is becoming more harmful over time, we note that data accrued by internet-based and social-media platforms are needed to more rigorously examine these possibilities.”

Doubts about the study

The Oxford University research paper caused a stir for its claims that there is no evidence of social media causing greater harm to adolescents, particularly among fellow academics who study the social and personal effects of technology.

Dr Suku Sukunesan, a senior lecturer in information systems at the Swinburne University of Technology, thought there ought to have been more nuance when comparing different technologies like social media and television.

“The study is very interesting and they have looked at a large number of respondents but I think it lacks some details,” he told Information Age.

“To me comparing TV to a mobile device is like comparing a small bag to a large custom-built suitcase.

“A mobile device has many other functionalities while a TV, even though they have become slightly smarter, is still a simple screen used for an output, not a device used for more active engagement.”

Dr Sukunesan also said the use of self-reporting to monitor social media usage and mental health was inherently flawed – something the paper’s authors did mention.

“I’m sure almost none of the 10 to 15-year-old kids cited in this study accurately reported their time spent on these platforms,” he said.

“It’s very difficult to properly track time when you’re engaged in those kinds of addictive hedonic activities.

“I think there is still a lack of guidance when it comes to social media exposure and what apps should be consumed at what age.”