C: Mario Gómez Hernández / Scopio

Trinity research: ‘Goldilocks amount’ of time online might be good for teenagers

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

The paper noted that “in the last 20 years there has been a rapid increase in rates of mental health problems among teenagers and young adults” and said a recent review had found some benefits of social media, including increased self-esteem and perceived social support, but also adverse effects including increased isolation and depression scores.

The researchers also found that in today’s connected world low engagement with digital media is also associated with poor mental health outcomes for male adolescents who spend less time online than their peers. This finding supports the ‘goldilocks’ hypothesis – that digital media use at moderate levels may not be intrinsically harmful and there may be a point between low and high use that is ‘just right’ for young people.

“For females, placement in the high usage group at age 13 was associated with increased internalizing symptoms, whereas placement in the high usage group at age 17 was associated with an increase in all symptoms. For males, placement in the high usage group at 17 was associated with increased emotional symptoms, and placement in the “low usage & behaviour engagement”group –  a group showing low reported time online and low engagement in our measured online behaviours at 17 – was associated with an increase in all symptoms,” the paper reported.

“Finally for both sexes, placement in the “moderate usage, entertainment only” group at age 13, (a group reporting no school-based online engagement), was associated with increases in all symptoms except emotional symptoms.”

“High digital media usage is associated with increased psychiatric symptoms in both males and females, with moderate usage associated with positive effects on symptoms compared to both our high usage, and low usage groups,” the research found.

This is the first time the ‘goldilocks’ theory has been examined in Irish teenagers/young adults. It is also the first study to attempt the integration of both time and online behaviours when examining associations between digital media and mental wellbeing.

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

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

“There is a simple narrative out there that more is worse. It is important to emphasise that online engagement is now a normal channel of social participation and non-use has consequences.  Our findings also raise the possibility that moderate use is important in today’s digital world and that low levels of online engagement carries its own risks. Now the questions for researchers are how much is too much and how little is too little?”

The research, drawing on longitudinal data from the Growing Up in Ireland study, looked at the association between adolescent use of online engagement and mental wellbeing in over 6,000 young people between the age of 13 and again at the age of 17/18.

The researchers asked participants to report the time they spent on line as well as the activities they engaged in: online messaging, sharing of videos and pictures, school or college work, watching movies and listening to music. Mental wellbeing was assessed by questions investigating emotional, behavioural and peer issues.

The study characterised young person’s online behaviour based on length of time spent online as well as the types of online behaviours engaged in. Adjusting for prior psychiatric disorders and symptoms at the age of 9 and 13, the study found that high engagement in digital media strongly predicted worse mental health outcomes for both boys and girls.

Furthermore, low use of digital media was associated with worse mental health for both boys and girls and was also predictive of peer problems for girls.

Dr Ross Brannigan, lead author of the study and a former postdoctoral researcher in Trinity’s Department of Sociology, said that the study was novel in that it considers the importance of both time and online behaviours when examining associations between digital media and mental wellbeing.

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