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From the Research: How Teens Use Phones Can Predict Their Wellness

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Isaiah McPeak
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Dr. Mike Brooks from our therapist council shared this journal article with us recently: “The impact of digital technology use on adolescent well-being.” It’s a 2020 “study of studies” on adolescents, technology, and well-being. We read it so you don't have to and pulled out what we felt were the key points!

Types of Use. Why not all “technology time” is the same.

Active vs. Passive
Communicating or creating are active forms. Consuming information, scrolling by, anonymously watching or lurking is passive.

Goal- Directed vs. Procrastinating
Achieving a purpose like staying up to date on a friend versus procrastinating on an assignment.

Social vs. Non-Social
Social use is participatory, such as a conversation or even a “like”, while non-social consumption is, for example, listening to music.


Footnoted research concludes that “levels of general life satisfaction remained stable during the last 20 years.” But why the rise in psychological issues if life satisfaction is stable? One theory from this research is that psychological issues are on the rise because we’re more comfortable talking about and naming them than ever before, rather than the actual number of cases being on the increase.

  • The answers of 46,817 European adolescents and young adults show that, whereas overall internet use has risen strongly, both life satisfaction and health problems remained stable.
  • In an analysis of 43 studies on the effects of online technology use on adolescent mental well-being, Best et al43 found that “The majority of studies reported either mixed or no effect(s) of online social technologies on adolescent wellbeing.
  • The pros and cons in the research are pretty much the themes you already know (from cyberbullying and insufficient sleep to connectedness to loneliness), but seem to largely cancel out regarding overall well-being.
  • Causal relationships are really hard to establish! “The study concludes that those who use social media more often might also be those with lower mental health” puts the horse before the cart we most expect.

What technology does to adolescentsis likely too one-dimensional and the better question involves agency: “What do adolescents DO with technology,” including the specific type of tech use?


Passive social media use correlates to depression and anxiety, while active use correlates to well-being. So it seems more about how you use it than that you use it— another nuanced thing where one must learn wisdom instead of hard and fast rules!


From their conclusion:

  • The dose makes the poison; it appears that both low and excessive use are related to decreased well-being, whereas moderate use is related to increased well-being.
  • No screen time is created equal; different uses will lead to different effects.
  • Adolescents are likely more vulnerable to effects of digital technology use on well-being, but it is important not to patronize adolescents—effects are comparable and adolescents not powerless.
We hope these snippets help you talk to your kids, tweens, teens, and partners about phones! Instead of looking at screen-time, it seems that type of use is the best way to mature into technology.

On our product team, this research has inspired some of these things:

- We are spurred on at Pinwheel to help kids make the connection between technology and their own well-being early and often.

- Pinwheel is designing time reports on apps and the phone that really jump out at kids and helping with self-reflection and connection to our "real world" feelings that over time help us track our well-being and identify issues that we're maybe solving with distraction mechanisms.

Thanks for the article tip Dr. Brooks!

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