Technologies have become a staple component of twenty-first century social life. Social media platforms connect people around the globe, modern video games stream live events to millions of users and video calls help those experiencing ‘social distancing’ to keep in touch with friends and family.
The speed with which these digital modes of connection have become embedded in society is astonishing. Yet it is unsurprising. Humans are an inherently social species, driven by the need to connect, communicate and learn from others. The digital revolution, which has already affected many global processes, is now reforming one of the most central components of human life.
Yet the consequences of these rapid changes in how we communicate and connect remain elusive. How are we affected by technologies such as social media? How do social interactions via screens compare to their face-to-face counterparts? How can digital technologies be designed and regulated? These are all questions that remain unanswered. Scientific inquiry in this area is therefore important, as it will provide crucial information to policy-makers, parents and the general population. Yet academic disciplines like psychology, in which I work, have responded slowly to this challenge.
I have spent the last six years conducting research to help address the widespread lack of scientific evidence in this area. In particular, I investigate how social media and use of digital technology affects teenagers, both in the UK and internationally. This is an area fraught with concern and hype. Media articles routinely compare the use of social media to that of hard drugs, or blame large decreases in adolescent mental health on the widespread use of digital technologies. Yet my work has shown that the story is a lot more complicated.
First, it is not the amount of time that teenagers spend using screens that is important. Instead it is the content or activities with which they are interacting, and the motivations they have for doing so, that probably determine how they are affected. Furthermore, not every teenager reacts in the same way to the same digital content; individual differences are very influential. Lastly, there is still no clear causal link between using technologies such as social media and changes in well-being or mental health. Indeed, the paths go both ways. In one of my most recent studies I found that teenagers who increase their social media use in one year show on average a very small drop in life satisfaction the following year. But the opposite is also the case: a drop in life satisfaction in one year predicts a small increase in social media use the next year. The link between digital technology use and mental health is therefore complicated, bi-directional and governed by many individual factors that have not yet been rigorously studied.
Even though my work often raises more questions than answers, it has informed policy decisions that aim to improve the way we deal with teenage technology use. For example, some of my studies were used as evidence by the UK chief medical officers to establish UK screen-time guidelines: in short, it’s not the time on digital devices that matters but what children and teenagers do with them. This guidance was echoed by the Royal Society for Paediatrics & Child Health and the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, to which I gave oral and written evidence during their investigation.
Yet much more needs to be done. Our lack of understanding about the most basic aspects of digital social life is especially pertinent in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has made us more reliant on digital connection than ever before. It is clear that the importance of this will only increase in the future. My Research Fellowship at Emmanuel is therefore supporting me to continue my investigations into the value and risks of a digitally mediated social life. If successful, my work will inform technology policy that could shape how we connect with others for decades to come.