Although using the Internet and social media may help ward off depression and anxiety in some adolescents, a new American study found that tapping away on a smartphone or surfing the web was linked to increases in attention, behaviour and self-regulation problems in young people already at risk of mental health problems.
The research, published in the journal Child Development, set out to investigate what relationship may exist between the amount of time per day spent sending text messages, using social media and using the Internet, and the behaviour of adolescents already at risk of mental health problems.
The scientists studied 151 at-risk young adolescents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, aged between 11 and 15. Three times a day for a month, the participants filled out smartphone-based questionnaires about their digital technology use.
On average, the adolescents spent 2.3 hours a day using digital technologies.More than an hour of that time was spent texting, with the adolescents sending on average 41 text messages per day.
The researchers, based at Duke University in the USA, noticed that on days when the young people used their devices more – beyond their own usual usage and average usage of peers – they were more likely to experience behavioural problems such as lying and fighting.
The study also found that on days when devices were used more, the young people experienced difficulty paying attention and exhibited attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms.
When the adolescents and their symptoms were revaluated 18 months later, the scientists found that those who spent the most time using digital technology experienced increased conduct problems and self-regulation problems.
However, the study also echoes previous research in highlighting positive effects linked to the use of digital technology. On days when adolescents spent more time using digital technologies, they were less likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety, the study reveals.
Note that the findings cannot be applied to all adolescents.
A large study of 2,000 adolescents is currently underway to determine how and why the use of digital technology can lead to future problems in certain young people.