A ‘Goldilocks’ approach to teens’ time online could be best, study reveals

1 Jun 2022

Image: © Halfpoint/Stock.adobe.com

As advocates rally for regulation of online platforms to ensure the safety and wellbeing of young people, research suggests that eliminating online engagement is not necessarily a healthy choice.

Striking the right balance in the amount of time spent online could be good for teenagers’ wellbeing, according to new research from Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

The study from TCD’s Department of Sociology found that poor mental wellbeing in adolescents is associated with both low and high levels of digital engagement.

While there has been much research into the dangers of high levels of digital media engagement, this is the first time the ‘Goldilocks’ theory has been examined among teenagers in Ireland. TCD’s findings support this theory, which suggests that moderate engagement with digital media is not intrinsically harmful.

The study found that high engagement in digital media strongly predicted worse mental health outcomes for both boys and girls. However, low use of digital media was also associated with worse mental health in both cohorts, and was also predictive of peer problems for girls.

‘Online engagement is now a normal channel of social participation and non-use has consequences’

Prof Richard Layte, co-author of the paper, said that evidence that online engagement is damaging for adolescents is “mixed”.

“Our work provides fresh insights on the impact of digital engagement at the age of 17 to 18, and the results provide worrying evidence of real harms that require urgent action,” he said.

“There is a simple narrative out there that more is worse. It is important to emphasise that online engagement is now a normal channel of social participation and non-use has consequences. Our findings also raise the possibility that moderate use is important in today’s digital world and that low levels of online engagement carries its own risks.”

Now, Layte said, the research challenge is determining how much online engagement is ‘just right’, per the Goldilocks fairytale.

What teens do online is also important

TCD’s research involved 6,000 young people in Ireland and drew on longitudinal data from the Growing Up in Ireland study. It looked at the online behaviours and mental wellbeing of participants at the age of 13 and then again in their late teens.

Participants reported the time they spent online and what they did, such as messaging, posting content to social media, school work or streaming media. Their mental health was assessed through questions examining any emotional, behavioural and peer issues.

“We found clear distinctions between groups spending similar time online, but differing in their behaviours online,” said Dr Ross Brannigan, lead author of the study.

“This indicates the importance of considering both time and behaviours online as well as the quality of these behaviours, for example passive compared to active behaviours, or the types of behaviours such as social, educational, entertainment.”

The study, which is part of the EU-funded TeenPath project with RCSI, has been published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Regulating for wellbeing online

This study comes just as the Children’s Rights Alliance hosted a briefing on children and young people’s safety and wellbeing online.

The event heard from speakers from seven political parties who outlined their priorities for online safety, which included demands for social media platforms to examine their practices and the establishment of digital media education programmes.

What all representatives agreed, according to Children’s Rights Alliance CEO Tanya Ward, was that the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill should include an individual complaint mechanism.

“The absence of an individual complaints mechanism is the biggest weakness in the legislation as it stands and it simply will fail to take strides against the harms young people experience online without this necessary safeguard,” said Ward.

“There is landmark legislation coming at European level, there is momentum building in the US, and Australia and Fiji are even further ahead with well-established online safety commissioners. In Ireland, we have waited for over a decade for the opportunity this Government has now – to ensure online platforms and big tech companies based here are responsible and held accountable for providing for the safety of those that engage with their services,” Ward added.

“Our primary concern is for children and young people who we know are online in greater numbers than ever before. These platforms have a responsibility to ensure safety by design.”

Speaking on his research, Brannigan said: “Digital media and online usage are controversial topics when it comes to effects on mental health, with no real consistency of results overall.

“While these results are not causal or deterministic, our findings are an important first step on the path to revealing why these relationships exist. It will now be important to build on these findings and further investigate why digital media engagement may be related to mental wellbeing.”

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.