KEY POINTS

  • There's a view that screen time can cause loneliness and depression
  • Researchers looked at teens' loneliness levels and online use during the lockdown
  • They found that social media can help lessen loneliness when used positively

Many parents may be worried about the effect of screen time on their teen children's mental health. However, a team of researchers has found that teens who had positive online interactions were less lonely during the lockdown.

This suggests that it's the quality, not the quantity of time spent online that matters when it comes to well-being.

The lockdowns related to COVID-19 had teens cooped up in their homes for quite a long time. In Peru, for instance, strict lockdown in 2020 had tens of millions of people in their homes, with only one adult family member allowed to leave to complete errands, the University of California Berkeley (UC Berkeley) noted in a news release.

This means many young people were left isolated indoors. But does this isolation, along with "excessive" social media use, make for a "loneliness epidemic"?

For their new study, recently published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, a team of researchers from UC Berkeley had a closer look at how perceived positive and negative experiences online may relate to adolescents' perceptions of loneliness during weeks of lockdown.

"The aim of this study was to examine levels of loneliness during early stages of physical isolation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in adolescents in Peru," the researchers wrote. "Further, we investigated whether loneliness was associated with online experiences, an important source of peer connection at a time of remote instruction."

To do this, the researchers surveyed thousands of students aged 11 to 17 on their online behavior and relationships. They completed questionnaires on the devices they used, their preferences, loneliness levels and well-being.

They also rated statements like, "I feel valued by people in my social media," as well as, "People in my social media treat me badly," on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "never" and 5 being "frequently," UC Berkeley noted.

From the original 3,859 participants, 735 completed the surveys with the measures relevant to the study.

Quality, Not Quantity of Online Usage

In general, the researchers found that the students had more positive than negative online interactions, particularly when it comes to discussing problems. What's more, the teens who had support online also reported less loneliness, UC Berkeley noted.

"Perceptions of positive online experiences were more frequent than negative experiences, with both online experiences reported as more frequent for older students," the researchers wrote. "Lower loneliness was associated with lower negative experiences and also higher positive experiences. ”

Simply put, greater positive online experiences "endorsed" lower loneliness levels, while negative online interactions led to reports of greater feelings of loneliness.

"Our findings support our hypothesis that how you spend your time on screens, and not how much time you spend online, is the best predictor of loneliness and well-being," the study's lead author, Dr. Lucía Magis-Weinberg of UC Berkeley's Institute of Human Development, said as per the university news release. "In light of this, teachers and parents might want to focus more on promoting positive online experiences for youth rather than limiting screen time."

According to Magis-Weinberg, when used positively, such as to communicate with friends and family instead of "scrolling endlessly" and comparing oneself to others, social media may actually have a positive effect on well-being.

Teenager Online Representation. Photo: Pixabay