We are in the midst of a global transition in which digital “screens” are no longer simply entertainment devices and distractions; rather, young people are currently living in a hybrid reality that links digital spaces to offline contexts. There is a heated debate being played out within academia and across scientific communities about the impact of “screen time” on young people’s mental health and wellbeing. This discourse is amplified across public media outlets, with headlines that scream for bans or restrictions on screen time, lest it cause the current generation of youth to become increasingly violent, addicted, depressed, anxious, and even suicidal. It is clear that the current generation of young people is growing up in a digital ecosystem unprecedented in its ubiquity and complexity.
Far less clear are the mental health implications, the risks versus benefits, of this brave new digital world.Instead of this focus on “screen time”, we propose an alternative, functional approach to studying young people’s mental health in the digital age, one that examines why and how digital media affect young people’s development. Specifically, we suggest that understanding identity development – the core developmental task of adolescence and young adulthood – can help pinpoint the digital experiences that contribute to healthy versus problematic mental health outcomes.
Our main argument is that understanding the processes underlying this core developmental concern of adolescents and young adults can help pinpoint the digital experiences that will contribute to both healthy normative development as well as the emergence of serious mental health concerns. Digital media are designed to serve many different functions: socialising, working, building relationships, as well as playing and being entertained. Instead of simple frequency counts on different devices and applications, what we need to examine is how the function of digital media relates to mental health. Specifically, we seek to understand the impact of different features of digital media, and individual differences in their use, in relation to identity development, the core developmental task of adolescence.
To test the premises of this alternative functional approach for young people’s mental health in the digital age, we work on developing a psychologically informed app (working title Excavo) that can help youth figure out what it is what they want out of their digital life, and act on that.
For this project, we are currently looking for young people (17-25 years old) who are comfortable and fluent in English, and interested in participating in user tests to figure out how we might best achieve our goal of helping youth. Are you interested, or do you know a family member that might be interested? Feel free to contact Nastasia Griffioen (firstname.lastname@example.org), the lead researcher on this project, for more information.