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Maybe Our Phones Aren’t the Problem, Argues a New Book

6 minute read

Digital devices have reduced our attention spans to the point that they’re shorter than that of a goldfish. The blue light they emit disturbs our sleep. Most worryingly of all, smartphones are savaging the mental health of the young, and of teenage girls in particular. All things considered, digital technologies are a blight upon society. Right?

Not so fast, says psychologist Pete Etchells in his new book, Unlocked, publishing March 21. Etchells, a professor of psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University in the U.K., previously debunked fears that video games zombified kids and turned them violent. Now, he’s turned his attention to an even more pervasive societal anxiety—screen time. Contrary to prevailing opinion, the evidence for digital devices causing various harms—poor mental health, sleep deprivation, shrinking attention spans—is weak, argues Etchells.

“You get these quite brazen headlines that appear to be grounded in science, that say in fairly unequivocal terms: these things are bad for us. And of course, that fits with our worldview,” Etchells says. But after taking a hard look at the evidence on how screen time affects our sleep, attention span, and mental health, ”you realize that actually, it’s not that clear cut.” 

Don’t blame the screens, yet

In Unlocked, Etchells, who says he has never taken funding or partnered with technology companies, takes the studies that purport to show the negative impacts of smartphones and methodically pokes holes in them. To do so, he plunges deep into the weeds.

Take the literature on screen time and mental health, for example. Most of the studies, Etchells points out, take data from large surveys and examine whether people who reported spending more time on screen-based activities were more likely to report poor mental health. However, he says, observational studies like these fall victim to the classic experimental issue—correlation does not imply causation. Instead of time spent on a smartphone causing mental health issues, it could be that mental health issues cause people to spend more time on their phones, he suggests, or both phone usage and poor mental health could be caused by a third factor, such as loneliness.

Even allowing for this, a reanalysis of an influential study that claimed to show that screen time and depression were strongly associated found that “less than half a percent of the depressive symptoms a female student reports can be predicted by knowing how much social media use she reports.” Etchells documents many more perceived flaws in the research on screen time, such as inconsistencies in how researchers define screen time. Once “you start to scratch away at this, and start to dig beneath the surface of the literature,” it’s not so definite, he says.

Throughout the book, Etchells is eager to stress that he does not reach his conclusions as a lone contrarian. Rather, it's a common belief among those who study the topic, he says. For example, a review on the topic of “Adolescent mental health in the digital age” published in 2020 found that “most research to date has been correlational, focused on adults versus adolescents, and has generated a mix of often conflicting small positive, negative and null associations.”

In a little over 200 pages, Etchells also assesses whether digital devices impact our attention spans and sleep (they probably don’t, he argues); whether screen addiction truly exists (it doesn’t, he says); and much more. Dense discussions of statistics and experiments are broken up with candid personal stories of his and his family’s experience with technology.

The latest moral panic

Etchells, an avid gamer, remembers reading a headline in 2011 that declared: Computer games leave children with 'dementia' warns top neurologist. “That doesn’t make sense,” he thought.

“I went to the pub and I got drunk with some colleagues at work, and [I got] a bit ranty and angry,” recalls Etchells, who was at the time working as a postdoctoral researcher and was focused on evolutionary psychology. “And somebody who I'm sure was bored with me ranting about it was like: ‘Well, why don't you put your money where your mouth is, and do some research on it?’”

He did, publishing Lost in a Good Game in 2019. Lost in a Good Game and Unlocked share a suspicion of the moral panics that accompany the arrival of a new form of media. In Unlocked, Etchells’ historical moral panic comparison of choice is the repeal of the paper tax in the U.K. in 1861, after which some worried that women, children and working classes “needed to be patronisingly ‘protected’ from an influx of trash literature.” But there have been many others throughout history: from people in Ancient Greece wondering what damage writing might do, to fears over “radio addiction,” to concerns that TV might promote violent behavior. 

This isn’t cause for dismissal, says Etchells. But it is cause for skepticism. “Is this the one that we actually should be worried about?” he asks. “The answer at the minute is: We don't know. We can't know. Because we haven't got the data.”

Digital deliberation

This is more than dry academic debate—lawmakers around the world are starting to propose laws that would significantly impact the way people use their digital devices. In the U.S., Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, has proposed a bill that would ban children under 16 from social media sites. In the U.K., Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is reportedly considering doing the same.

But any action taken should be evidence-based, stresses Etchells, for two reasons. First, baseless regulations could fail or even backfire, he says, citing the example of South Korea’s 2011 Cinderella Law, which banned children under 16 from playing online video games between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. Analysis of the law suggests that it increased the amount of sleep that the average young person got by just 1.5 minutes, while also increasing the amount of time they spent on the internet during the day—hardly the outcome that South Korea lawmakers were hoping for.

The second reason, Etchells says, is that sensationalized public discourse can actually let the technology industry off the hook. “We've gone off the track with a lot of these sorts of technologies—they do not have wellbeing as the number one concern, and I think that needs to change,” he says.” But in order to have those sorts of conversations with the industry, we need to be able to identify and talk about the problem appropriately, and in a not sensationalized way.”

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Write to Will Henshall at will.henshall@time.com