Neither too little nor too much, but just enough.
This middle ground is what researchers say provides adolescents with the most optimal well-being when it comes to time spent online.
A recent study of thousands of Irish teenagers found that low and high engagement with digital media compared to their peers was associated with poorer mental health.
Instead, the researchers suggest that moderate levels of use are “not inherently harmful,” a finding that supports what is known as the “Goldilocks” theory.
The study, from the Department of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin, was published in the journal Computers in human behavior.
“There’s a simple narrative out there that more is worse. It is important to emphasize that online engagement is now a normal channel for social participation and non-use has consequences,” Richard Layte, professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin and co-author of the article, said in a press release.
“Our findings also raise the possibility that moderate use is important in today’s digital world and that low levels of online engagement carry their own risks. Now the questions for researchers are how much c is too much and how little is too little?
The researchers used data from the government-funded program Study Growing up in Irelandwho followed two groups of thousands of children for years.
In the recent study, the researchers measured the online engagement of more than 6,000 young people at age 13 and then at 17 or 18.
After excluding missing data, the total number of participants at the end was over 5,000.
The researchers asked participants to indicate the amount of time they spent online and the activities they engaged in, such as online messaging, sharing videos and images, school or university work, watching movies and listen to music.
The study measured mental well-being based on psychiatric symptoms reported by parents when their child was 13 and 17 years old, using questions about emotional, behavioral and peer-related problems.
The researchers also adjusted for psychiatric disorders and symptoms prior to age nine, as well as social and economic factors using the mother’s level of education.
Members of the “low” group reported spending between one and 30 minutes online per day, the “moderate” groups spent between 61 and 90 minutes online, and the “high” group reported spending between 91 and 120 minutes online .
What the researchers found was that both high and low digital use were associated with increased psychiatric symptoms, compared to those who engaged in moderate use.
Lead author Ross Brannigan, a former postdoctoral researcher in Trinity’s sociology department, said there were also clear distinctions between groups that spent the same time online but differed in their online behaviors.
He said this means the quality and type of behavior must also be considered, such as whether it is passive or active, or whether it is for social, educational or entertainment purposes.
“Digital media and online use is a controversial topic when it comes to its effects on mental health, with no real consistency in results overall,” Brannigan said.
“Although these results are neither causal nor deterministic, our findings are an important first step on the way to revealing the existence of these relationships. It will now be important to build on these results and to investigate further. why digital media engagement may be linked to mental well-being.