Social science research got a shoutout this week when U.S. first lady Melania Trump unveiled Be Best, her signature initiative on children’s health. Coming from an administration that has often denigrated the value of such research, that’s good news. And although the scientists welcome the high-level attention, they note that the study the White House cited doesn’t really address a major thrust of the initiative. They also are in the dark about how they appeared on the White House radar.
Be Best “will champion the many successful programs that teach children tools and skills for emotional, social, and physical well-being,” explains a press release that accompanied the 7 May rollout at the White House. One such skill, it notes, is learning “positive ways” to use social media to combat cyberbullying and foster a greater sense of community.
To emphasize the challenge that children and parents face in dealing with now ubiquitous social media technologies, the release cites a 2017 paper that found a teenager’s mental health deteriorates with prolonged use of cellphones, social media, and computer games. Although it measured the frequency of social media usage, the paper does not actually address how adolescents can use social media as a force for good, says its lead author, social psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University (SDSU) in California.
“We looked at the sheer number of hours they are spending on these devices and found a positive correlation with their reporting a range of mental health issues,” Twenge explains. In particular, she says, as screen time went up, so did reports of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. But, “The question of how you are using [screen time] is a subject for others,” Twenge says.
Twenge readily admits she’s no pioneer in studying the impact of electronic media on children. Researchers have been looking at the connection between screen time and children’s mental health since TVs became a household fixture in the 1960s.
What interests Twenge are generational shifts in behavior. Her latest book is on the postmillennial cohort she calls iGen, the first to have grown up with smartphones. And its lengthy subtitle strikes a cautionary note: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.
The paper that Trump’s initiative cited was published online in November 2017 in Clinical Psychological Science. It draws on two ongoing surveys of adolescent behavior as well as national statistics on teenage suicide rates. The quartet of researchers from SDSU and Florida State University in Tallahassee noticed a significant increase in self-reported mental health problems starting in 2010 and went looking for an explanation.
The cause, they believe, is the considerable amount of time adolescents are spending online and on smartphones. The data also show that, by comparison, adolescents who spend more time engaged in nonscreen activities, including sports, jobs, schoolwork, and face-to-face social interactions, report fewer mental health issues.
Twenge was not aware that her research is cited in the background material on Be Best and says nobody from the White House contacted her. That’s just as well, she adds, because she’s not a clinical or school psychologist who would be working on programs aimed at fostering healthy online behavior, one of the key element in the first lady’s campaign.
“This is primary research,” Twenge says. And she hopes the White House will “consult with applied psychologists before implementing any” kind of social media program based on her work. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment, and the website for the initiative gives no details about how any programs would be carried out.)
At the same time, Twenge offers parents her own rule of thumb for regulating their child’s use of iPhones and other electronic devices. “No more than 2 hours a day,” she says.
Asked why, she confesses that she has no evidence to support that number. But she’s willing to speculate based on her familiarity with how iGens live their lives. “I suspect that anything above that amount is likely to interfere with their normal interactions with friends, and with healthy sleeping patterns.”