How much time on mobile phones and online is bad for your mental health?

Last night, my wife and I placed an Internet time-limit app on my 12-year-old son’s iPhone. It seemed long overdue, but he threw the kind of stink I would have expected if we gave away our puppy.

We wanted to save his brain from technology and, of course, we had some safety reasons as well. In January 2013, a California girl made headlines for drugging her parents’ milkshakes with sleeping pills in order to use the Internet past her curfew. Perhaps coincidentally and not a minute too soon, that same year the American Psychological Association began recognizing Internet addiction as a disorder. The Internet, it seems, isn’t safe for children or parents.

There is a chorus of experts that claim that the Internet is ruining our lives. Their messages are appealing because we can relate. We lament that we no longer know our best friend’s telephone number and that our phone notifications keep us in a state of distraction. We can almost feel technology changing our brains.

It’s not just paranoia; technology does, in fact, change your brain. But so does everything else. The brain is highly malleable. From before our births all the way until our deaths, our networks of brain cells actually change due to outside stimuli. Everything changes your brain: practicing sports, playing music, reading, taking a walk outside, even sleeping.

Sure, says the skeptic, but those things change us for the good! The Internet is different because it is changing us for the worse. True?

Not a yes-or-no answer
The answer is more nuanced than yes or no. Studies have shown that increased Internet usage leads to decreased attention span, inability to focus and poor communication skills. But the same can be said of many new technologies, going all the way back to the written word. Socrates despised writing and believed it would bring down mankind. It certainly did diminish our oral storytelling skills, something that no doubt would have been perceived as a great loss at the time. But we also lost all written record of Socrates, except as told by his students. Clearly the greater loss in the end.

The positive benefits of technology almost always outweigh the negatives. The written word is an obvious example, but even something as nuclear as a nuclear bomb has arguably been positive (as of yet, anyway). It stopped a world war, created a renewable power source and generated countless innovations.

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Every new technology has scared us and made us debate whether it was a net positive or negative for society: the printing press, the assembly line, the telephone, the radio, the television. The more time passes, the more the naysayers come around (or die out). These days you can’t find too many people who claim the printing press was a negative development, but at the time there were many.

But the Internet just feels different, doesn’t it? It feels like we’re losing our selfhood. I empathize with those who say it feels different now — it feels that way to me too — but every technology has always seemed “different” when it first came out. The internet and its accompanying smartphones and connected devices are nothing more than new technologies, and almost without exception, new technologies have ultimately brought more good than bad.

The disconnect in our brains
The disconnect lies within our brains. Technology is never good or bad; rather, how it is used determines its value. The key to the Internet is to separate the medium from the media. There are many things that are wonderful and valuable about the Internet: the efficiency of e-commerce, the ability to retrieve information, crowdsourcing and making the world more connected all come to mind. But there are many things that are dangerously distracting like texts and tweets.

Scientists from Oxford and Cardiff University recently conducted an extensive study of digital use titled “A Large-Scale Test of the Goldilocks Hypothesis,” in other words, testing whether there is an amount of digital consumption that is “just right.” They found that a sweet spot does indeed exist when you test technology use against mental health. Too much digital time correlates with lower mental well-being, but so does too little.

Moderate use correlates with the best mental health states, and I would add that focusing on positive content yields the best results. The researchers concluded that “moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world.” And that is exactly what my 12-year-old will now have to live with.

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