Social media ‘addiction’ – the evidence.

screen timeWhile most of us think of addiction as the physical and psychological dependence on a substance such as alcohol, cigarettes or any kind of drugs, the word has also been used for psychological dependence on behaviours like shopping, eating, gambling, and now screen time – especially the time that adolescents spend on social media. But what is the evidence for this?

Well, as everyone knows, when doing research, first of all the terms have to be operationalised.  Given that screens are multi-media, and the person could be reading a book, Skyping with a grandparent, watching a TED talk for their homework, contacting a friend, or posting their latest pics on Instagram, we need to be clear that it is time on social media that is causing the moral panic.  Though it is also worth noting that every time a teenager is seen staring at a screen, the assumption is always that they are on social media. In his latest letter to social media firms, Jeremy Hunt (UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care) proposed a future where every child gets a state-imposed social media limit, similar to the alcohol units recommended by government. After a child surpasses a set cutoff point, their social media access is stopped for the day.

To implement such an extreme policy, scientific evidence of damage would be needed.  And this is where the problem begins:  the evidence is controversial.  Social media use has been found to be correlated with depression and  sleep disturbance  in young adults. The popular press has many alarming stories of permanent damage done to young people.

However, longitudinal studies of social media suggest that frequent social media use is generally associated with increases in self-esteem and empathy for adolescents.  As Professor Sonia Livingstone notes in her TEDx talk on how children engage with the internet, research suggests that little has changed in terms of youth mental well-being since the pre-internet era which makes the causal connection between internet use and lower mental well-being unwarranted.  Moreover, US statistics on crimes against children showed a significant decrease in physical and sexual abuse and neglect of children between 1990-2014, with sexual abuse (the crime most often associated in the public imagination with internet use) showing the biggest decrease.

All new forms of media, especially those used predominantly by young people, tend to disturb the equilibrium of older people.  Newspapers, radio, TV, video games and now social media all receive or have received negative attention and been blamed for a perceived decrease in moral values amongst the young. Socrates blamed writing for weakening memory, and allowing the pretence of understanding, rather than true understanding.

Later School Start Times Help Students

asleep-3126444_640It has long been suspected, and now research is supplying the evidence: delaying school start times results in students getting more sleep, and feeling better.  The most recent study in Singapore investigated the impact of a 45-min delay in school start time on sleep and well-being of adolescents.  They shifted the start of the school day from 7.30am (which though early is not uncommon in Asian countries) to 8.15am, without making the day end later.  After one month, researchers interviewed students and found that bedtimes on school nights were delayed by nine minutes while the times students got up were delayed by about 32 minutes, resulting in an increased time in bed of 23 minutes.  This may not seem like much, but the percentage of students getting at least 8 hours of sleep in the school week rose from 6.9% to 16%, and all reported more alertness and feelings of well-being.

These findings support studies from the USA and UK.  However, it has proved difficult to change practices, even in face of this evidence, and calls in 2015 by Paul Kelley of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, to delay the start of school and college in the UK for the benefit of students largely went unheard or unheeded.  Teenagers don’t get to make educational policy!