It's no surprise that many parents today are deeply worried about what screen time is doing to their kids. A series of studies, many of them led by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, has claimed that staring at screens has led to alarming levels of anxiety, depression, and general misery among young people.

These results are click magnets (you might remember Twenge's dramatically titled Atlantic article, "Have Smart Phones Destroyed a Generation?" for example), so it's no shock that many in the media--including me, here on Inc.com--broadcast them far and wide. But there's one small problem with this attention-grabbing research. It appears to be wrong.

That's the finding of a rigorous new Oxford University study published in Nature Human Behavior. Applying more rigorous statistical techniques to data on around 350,000 young people--including some of the data Twenge looked at for her research--the Oxford scientists came to a startlingly different conclusion: Screen time isn't harming kids at all. It looks like Twenge's alarming findings were just a result of cherry picking the data.

Screens are about as scary as potatoes.

According to the fascinating writeup by Lydia Denworth in Scientific American, the new, more careful analysis shows that, no matter which measure you look at, screens have close to no effect on kids' psychological health. Are phones making kids more depressed? No. More suicidal? More selfish? More isolated? The answer is no, no, and no again.

Denworth brings home the point of how little effect screen time appears to have on measures of psychological well-being with a pair of memorable comparisons: "Technology use tilts the needle less than half a percent away from feeling emotionally sound. For context, eating potatoes is associated with nearly the same degree of effect and wearing glasses has a more negative impact on adolescent mental health."

For those interested in a deeper understanding in the difference between the statistical methods used by the Oxford research team and those used in earlier studies, Denworth's article provides fascinating details. But for less mathematically inclined parents, the takeaway is dead simple: You can mostly stop worrying about screen time now.

Being thoughtful about screen time is still a good idea.

Which doesn't mean you should just hand your kid an iPad and put your feet up. This study shows that, at the broad population level, screens aren't really impacting kids' mental health. That doesn't mean that one individual teenager might not have a problem with obsessive screen use. You don't want your kid to be one of those problematic individuals.

But avoiding excessive screen time shouldn't be too hard. "In a previous paper, [co-author of the current study Andrew] Przybylski and colleague Netta Weinstein demonstrated a 'Goldilocks' effect showing moderate use of technology--about one to two hours per day on weekdays and slightly more on weekends--was 'not intrinsically harmful,'" Denworth reports. That's a fairly attainable limit compared to the terror of screen time suggested by earlier studies.

Bottom line: Parents should pay attention to their particular child and set sensible limits based on their particular personality and habits, but there's no scientifically valid reason to lose sleep over screens. If you're not terrified of potatoes, you shouldn't be too worried about your kid's phone either.

Published on: Jan 23, 2019