In the short term, new research suggests, using digital technology can help kids who are prone to mental health problems keep depression and anxiety at bay.
Over time, however, researchers concluded that more tech use is linked to attention, self-regulation and behavior problems for those adolescents at risk for mental health problems.
The Duke University study, published May 3 in an issue of Child Development, finds that even though adolescents reported feeling slightly better on days when they were using technology, their behavior problems increased.
“They experience more conduct problems and higher ADHD symptoms compared to days they use technology less,” lead author Madeleine J. George told EurekaAlert, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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The research examined a potential relationship between adolescents’ mental health and time spent texting, on social media or on the internet generally.
It queried 151 young adolescents, somewhat ironically, through surveys on their smartphones.
Researchers asked about their digital technology use three times a day for a month. A year and a half later, the same 11- to 15-year-olds underwent mental health assessments.
Those kids averaged 2.3 hours a day using digital technologies, including an hour sending an average of 41 texts.
On days of heavy use, their likelihood of fighting, lying or displaying symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity ticked up.
The researchers said it was unclear whether the tech use drove the problems or was just another symptom — the classic causation or correlation mystery.
The fact that they reported better moods on days when they were using digital technology more, the researchers said, might indicate that their gadgets allow them to make more social connections and feel stronger ties to their peers.