Children's and young people's screen time and online wellbeing: A biased correlation?

On Wednesday, 20 March 2019, we celebrate the International Day of Happiness. This event has been celebrated by the United Nations (UN) every year since 2013 as a way to recognise the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world. For the occasion, the BIK Team looks into the ongoing debates on the relationship between screen time and the happiness of children and young people.

In its resolution 66/281 of 12 July 2012, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UNGA) proclaimed 20 March the International Day of Happiness, "recognising the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives" as well as "the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples".

Digital devices and online wellbeing of children and young people

When it comes to children and young people's wellbeing, digital devices usually have a bad reputation. Social media, in particular, are associated with a multitude of worries related to mental health. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and the likes have had to deal with a number of alarming headlines in recent years. For example, these platforms "can exacerbate children's and young people's body image worries, and worsen bullying, sleep problems and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness" according to an article published in The Guardian.

However, the causal link between social media use and mental health issues has never been empirically demonstrated, and many deem the correlation between social media and mental health somewhat simplistic. Moreover, there are possible reverse causality issues: are children and young people unhappy because of social media, or are children and young people with mental health issues more likely to use social media?

More and more experts and educators now advocate for a "quality over quantity" approach, recognising the potential benefits of digital devices – providing a platform for self-expression, enhancing social connections, supporting learning – and positing that whether they improve or harm children's and young people's development depends on what they do with their time spent online.

New guidance published in January 2019 by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in the United Kingdom contests research suggesting that children's screen time is harmful, explaining instead that "the evidence base for a direct ‘toxic' effect of screen time is contested, and the evidence of harm is often overstated". The RCPCH states that it is impossible to suggest general screen time thresholds for children and young people, but rather that it depends on each individual situation. The guidance suggests instead that children and young people's wellbeing might be affected when opportunities for positive activities – such as socialising, exercise or sleep – are displaced by screen time.

Insafe and BIK resources for the International Day of Happiness

The Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres (SICs) in Europe has paid significant attention to the impact of technology on the health and happiness of children and young people in the past years, especially in 2016, when an Insafe training meeting was dedicated to the topic, and the Insafe Coordination Team attended the "Mental health and young people in the digital age: addressing risks, seizing opportunities" event at the European Parliament (EP). In 2018, the BIK Coordination Team discussed the possible threats to mental health posed by social media to mark World Mental Health Day. In Ireland, the 2018 Zeminar Youth Conference focused on "managing your online wellbeing" and featured many interesting testimonies from young people with an important online presence. Some practical educational resources are also available for teachers and educators willing to empower young people online and promote their wellbeing, such as the "My well-being and yours: Respect begins with me!" resource by the Web We Want and ENABLE projects.

Find more resources aiming to support online wellbeing and happiness for children, young people, parents, carers or teachers in the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) resource gallery.

For more information on the International Day of Happiness, visit happinessday.org and the dedicated UN website. Participate in the movement on Twitter using the hashtag #InternationalDayOfHappiness.


Related news

Have you joined the movement for a happier world?

Since 2013, each year on 20 March, the United Nations (UN) celebrates the International Day of Happiness as a way of recognising the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world. 

International Day of Happiness

The United Nations International Day of Happiness recognises the relevance of happiness and wellbeing as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world, and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.