April 2, 2024   6 mins

“You stare at a screen. That’s all you do every night. No one wants to talk to you, and they get annoyed whenever you call.” Pete Etchells wrote those lonely words in a miserable teenage blog in 2002, just before 10pm on a bleak December night. He’s now a Professor of Psychology and the author of a new book on the science of screen time. To which you would be forgiven for responding: “Oh God — not another sermon on technology’s perils and the importance of a ‘digital detox’.”

After all, knocking technology seems to have been a collective New Year’s resolution for a certain sort of “psychologist”. Over the past month, global superstar Jonathan Haidt has been doing the rounds for his own new book, The Anxious Generation, warning how technology is “rewiring” children’s brains and “causing an epidemic of mental illness”. In a similar vein, author Abigail Shrier has been promoting her latest contribution, Bad Therapy, extolling the benefits of phoneless children. Certainly it’s a view that has found political currency on both sides of the Atlantic. Only last week, Florida’s Ron DeSantis signed one of the US’s most restrictive social media bans for children, while here in the UK the Government wants to ban phones in schools to improve educational standards.

It is into this fearful maelstrom that Etchells’s book enters, throwing down a rather unexpected conclusion into the mix.. Rather than spend page after page outlining how technology is corrupting Western children, he takes a more thoughtful view. Instead, he argues, “collectively, as a society, we have become too apprehensive — and even fearful — about screens”.

To justify this, Etchells explores the evidence for the harm caused by screens, and finds it unconvincing. Has screen time destroyed our attention span? Very unlikely. Does it interfere with adolescents getting enough sleep? Sometimes, depending on how and when the teenager is using the screen. Are smartphones destroying a generation’s mental health? It’s impossible to usefully answer such a sweeping question.

What studies have been done, he explains, are often small and poorly designed. They tend to rely on self-reporting, and elide correlation and causation. Some studies reported positive effects, or different effects for different groups. Building any kind of big picture is hindered by the fact that researchers are measuring different populations, different devices, different purposes, and different aspects of wellbeing or mental health.

“What studies have been done, he explains, are often small and poorly designed.”

Not enough evidence, then, but also no cause for immediate panic. Which raises the question: if no convincing evidence points to the harms of screen time per se, why are we so fearful of it? What does our unhealthy fixation on the power of technology say about us?

It’s true that young people, especially, are less happy, more anxious, and generally less able to cope with life than previous generations. A recent Resolution Foundation report found that a third of 18-24 year olds reported symptoms of poor mental health, and that one in 20 young people was prevented from working by ill-health. It’s also true that this rise in mental distress coincides with the spread of the internet, the smartphone and its seductive apps. But that doesn’t make for a simple, causal relationship.

Successive generations, let’s not forget, also have less independent time outside adult supervision, and fewer opportunities to take risks and initiatives for themselves. Kids first play outside when they’re a couple of years older than the age their parents did, and the kind of informal public spaces where their grandparents hung out together are turning into formal, privatised spaces for prescribed activities like shopping or organised sports. As Etchells points out, it’s fine to “talk about getting kids off their screens and ‘going outside’… but the reality is that, increasingly, there isn’t anywhere ‘outside’ for them to go”.

With this in mind, the increasingly online lives of young people may not be causing the diminishment of in-person interaction, but they are responding to it. Instead of hanging out in the park, teenagers exchange messages, memes and videos from their respective bedrooms. For some of them, this is a lifeline; for others, it is a well of insecurity and a conduit for bullying. As Etchells notes, “the question is not whether screen time affects mental health or vice versa, but why do some people thrive online and others struggle?” The answer, so far, seems to be that those who struggle offline will struggle online too.

Nevertheless, the form of those online interactions is different from the pre-digital social world, for better and worse. Take poor, unhappy, teenage Pete Etchells, who was dealing with life events — the death of his father — that would make any normal person depressed, In a previous generation, he might have poured out his feelings to a diary that would remain unread by anyone else. Or, a few years later, in that screenless generation, he might have drifted to the college bar, found other lonely souls and formed friendships that might slowly reach the pouring-out-of-feelings stage. Instead, his LiveJournal blog found like-minded people who were going through similar trials, and formed an informal support community across the internet, a community from which he eventually drifted away as his life improved.

Such screen-mediated forms of interaction are not necessarily better or worse than the old forms: for today’s young people, forming identities online, experimenting with projecting different aspects of ourselves to see how others respond, is both more and less controllable. More controllable, because you can edit your words and pictures, select your selfies, and craft your side of a conversation, in ways impossible in person. Awkward flirtations can happen remotely, without the other person reading your body language as you decide what to say or send next. Different versions of yourself can be shown to selected audiences, and adjusted to fit their response.

Less controllable, because Etchells isn’t convinced that we can create our ideal persona online, because we are constantly giving ourselves away in a million tiny interactions. Constant connection is now the social norm: it’s hard to switch off from a wider social environment and devote all your attention to the people sharing your physical space, when that means missing out on the endless flow of interactions. Technology, in other words, has reshaped the division between public and private. Any private space is now, by default, connected to a whole social world at all times, making solitude, or even intimate space, the exception. Conversely, when anything digital can be shared, what was a private conversation may be made public, so privacy becomes a relative and contingent quality.

It is not enough, then, to say that technology is simply not an issue. It is an inescapable part of our changing social fabric, for better and worse, and evolving with other social changes. But, as Etchells points out, that means we can’t look at our relationship with technology in isolation from those other changes.

Comparing the Screen Time panic with earlier iterations, like with video games in 1981 and even the trash literature panic of 1861, he notes a common assumption: “that we, as users, lack agency. It’s a form of technological determinism.” Like discussing food in isolation from the context in which we eat it — where and when, with whom, and why — talking about technology as an autonomous social phenomenon is perverse. Just like our eating habits, activities mediated by screens are still human activities. If our technology habits are not what we’d like them to be, we have to start with ourselves and our lives, not the objects of our habitual consumption.

This is why the “digital detox” is such an unhelpful approach. It frames our use of technology as inherently negative, something that takes over our lives so destructively that we must wean ourselves off it. But complete abstention, even for children, would be wildly impractical for most of us today. It would also mean losing all the positive aspects of technology: the convenience, the enrichment of our mental environment, and the myriad connections with other human beings that it enables. Etchells also notes the “puritanical undercurrent” of the digital detox, that regards the pleasure we take in much of our screen time as yet another reason to stop it.

Instead of using words like “addicted” or describing our brains being “hijacked”, we should be thinking about the content and context of our screen-mediated activities. When lonely teenagers talk to strangers online, the consequences depend far more on who they’re talking to, and why, and what else is happening in their lives, than on the hours of screen time they clock up.

As Etchells says: “We need to be more critical — not just of our own tech use, but of what we’re told about our tech use.”  It would be much easier to blame all the ills of the world on technology. But that narrative of powerful corporations and weak-willed humans is doing more than any FOMO-driven social media site to corrode our sense of agency, and our ability to change anything in the real world.

Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Big Data: Does Size Matter? is published by Bloomsbury Sigma.