The Oxford Internet Institute (University of Oxford) published the findings of a study this week which investigated the impact of technology on mental health in adolescents.

The study investigated engagement with smartphones, social media and television and reported finding little evidence to suggest an increased association between technology use and mental health exists.

I found these findings somewhat surprising so decided to dig a little deeper.

Firstly, information about new digital media has only been collected for a relatively short time, therefore, drawing firm conclusions about the impact on mental health at this stage may be premature. Thankfully this was something the researchers acknowledged themselves and suggested more data from internet-based and social-media platforms are needed to rigorously examine these possibilities.

Secondly, the results were mixed showing that while technology engagement may be less associated with depression, increased social media has contributed to a rise in other emotional problems. This would appear to be in line with what has been observed anecdotally.

Finally, the report relied on participants self-reporting their engagement and impact. The disadvantage here is that subjects may not be able to assess themselves accurately or they may submit more socially acceptable answers rather than being truthful. Again, the authors also acknowledged this limitation and suggest in studies of this topic, self-report measures of technology use are consistently biased and are not highly correlated with objective use.

So what can we conclude from this study?

Concerns that technology is becoming both more prevalent in young people’s lives and likewise more harmful to their mental health is not a new issue. Similar concerns were raised about Television use in the late ’80s and 90s, and although these concerns largely receded, research never conclusively demonstrated that it ceased being harmful or that the fears were not well-founded in the first place.

I think it is too early to draw any firm conclusions and more research is needed. Does scrolling for hours through filtered photos of other people’s perfect lives, at a time when many adolescents are still developing their own identity, have any impact on mental health? I suspect it does; we just need more data to prove it.