Is Your Child Addicted to a Phone? You Might Not Need to Worry After All

Children using smartphones in Seoul Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

The idea that smartphones and screen time are harmful to mental health has gained popularity in recent years. And last weekend, two companies invested in Apple called on the company to take action on what, they insisted, is an urgent problem. According to Wired, however, the science the letter cites on the mental health consequences of engaging with technology is questionable.

In a letter to Apple this past weekend, JANA Partners and the California State Teachers' Retirement System, which reportedly have a 0.2 percent share in the company, called on it to offer parents more tools to monitor how their children use Apple products, and for the company to pay more attention to their products' effects on children Wired reported. The letter was picked up by many media outlets in articles that telegraphed the message about the supposedly harmful effects of smartphones on young brains. But, as Wired points out, the arguments in the letter—including the relationship between social media use and suicide—are based on inconclusive science.

"In the most kind terms possible, the data isn't there," Andrew Przybylski, an Oxford psychologist told Wired. Przybylski, along with psychologist Netta Weinstein, has researched the effects of smartphones on children, and has published research suggesting that limiting children's screen time may only be so helpful. "They're citing maybe half a dozen studies that have been conducted, and they are drawing very extreme inferences from very weak data."

The letter alleges a link between device use and risk for suicide. This, among many of the claims in the letter are, according to Wired, drawn from the work of psychologist Jean Twenge, who was involved in writing the letter to Apple. As Newsweek has previously reported a recent paper by Twenge, which is cited in the letter, links social media use to increased depression and suicidal thoughts.

That research has been met with a skeptical response. Psychology graduate student Amy Orben pointed out that Twenge's results don't prove that increased social media use causes depression, but instead find a reportedly small correlation between those two things. Wired spoke to several other researchers who echoed this point, and Twenge herself told that magazine the her analyses do not show that one leads to the other.

A girl tries an iPhone inside an Apple store. Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty

The letter's main point is nothing too radical. It states that "there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner." The same researchers who pointed out the perceived flaws in Twenge's work seem to think this is by no means a bad idea.

But by focusing in and amplifying the familiar complaint that smartphones are severely damaging children exposed to them may be oversimplifying the situation. There is a clear popular attraction to the idea that smartphones are an uncomplicated social ill. An excerpt from Twenge's book, headlined "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" immediately went viral.

As Przybylski's past research suggests, a focus on screen time as all good or all bad can miss the forest through the trees. Attention to the context in which children use devices, his work suggests, is more important than simply whether they are using them and how long they are using them for. And "given that this digital genie cannot be put back in the bottle," as he has written, that context may deserve more attention.