Despite government warnings to the contrary, spending a long time staring at computer or smartphone screens may not actually be detrimental to your mental health.
Setting out its plan to make the internet a safer space for young people, the UK government outlined a list of ‘online harms’ that could have damaging effects on people’s mental wellbeing. The 98-page whitepaper takes aim at terrorism, child abuse and disinformation, among others.
One ‘harm’ to raise a few eyebrows, however, was screen time. The report spoke of addiction to digital services and excessive screen time as potential red flags for young people’s mental health. However, whilst the issue of addiction isn’t being debated, some have taken issue with what they see as a lazy inclusion of screen time in the list.
A report from the Oxford Internet Institute (albeit one that goes back to 2011) claims there is no apparent correlation between the length of time teenagers stare at their screens and their overall mental wellbeing.
In the test of some 17,000 teenagers in the UK, Ireland and USA, the institute found no discernible differences between youngsters who spent 30 minutes, 1 hour or 2 hours on their devices, even just before bed.
Some critics have argued that the result is outdated, with it being conducted some 8 years ago – a lifetime in the digital world. In the interim period, they claim, online content has diversified (and much of it for the worse). Young people can now get access to information on such things as anorexia and self harm more easily than ever before, they argue.
However, the Oxford Internet Institute’s Amy Orben is unbowed. She maintains that screen time isn’t detrimental to mental health in isolation. The content a person views when online is much more likely to have an impact, but this could happen in much less time than 30 minutes.
Orben did agree, however, that further research would be beneficial. “I think this study is only a first step,” she told bbc.co.uk. “We need to be asking better questions.”