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'Goldilocks' theory: Moderate time online may be 'just right' for teen mental health, study finds

Not too little, not too much, but just right researchers: That middle ground is what say offers adolescents the most optimal well-being when it comes to time spent online.

Not too little, not too much, but just right.

That middle ground is what researchers say offers adolescents the most optimal well-being when it comes to time spent online.

A recent study of thousands of Irish teenagers found both low and high engagement with digital media compared to their peers was associated with poorer mental health.

Instead, researchers suggest moderate levels of use is “not intrinsically harmful,” a finding that supports what is known as the “Goldilocks” theory.

The study, from the department of sociology at Trinity College Dublin, was published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour.

“There is a simple narrative out there that more is worse. It is important to emphasize that online engagement is now a normal channel of social participation and non-use has consequences,” Richard Layte, a professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin and co-author of the paper, said in a statement.

“Our findings also raise the possibility that moderate use is important in today’s digital world and that low levels of online engagement carries its own risks. Now the questions for researchers are how much is too much and how little is too little?”

The researchers used data from the government-funded Growing Up in Ireland study, which has followed two groups of thousands of children for years.

As part of the recent study, the researchers measured online engagement in more than 6,000 young people at 13 and again at either 17 or 18.

After excluding missing data, the total number of participants in the end numbered at more than 5,000.

The researchers asked the participants to report how much time they spent online and what activities they were engaged in, such as online messaging, sharing videos and pictures, school or college work, watching movies and listening to music.

The study measured mental well-being based on psychiatric symptoms reported by parents when their child was 13 and 17, using questions asking about emotional, behavioral and peer issues.

The researchers also adjusted for prior psychiatric disorders and symptoms at age nine, as well as social and economic factors by using the mother’s level of education.

Members of the “low” group reported spending between one and 30 minutes online per day, the “moderate” groups spent between 61 and 90 minutes online, and the “high” engagement group reported between 91 and 120 minutes online.

What the researchers found was that both high and low digital usage was associated with increased psychiatric symptoms, compared to those who engaged in moderate usage.

Lead author Ross Brannigan, a former postdoctoral researcher in Trinity’s department of sociology, said there were also clear distinctions between groups who spent similar time online, but differed in their behaviors online.

He said this means the quality and type of behavior also must be considered, such as whether it is passive or active, or if it’s for social, educational or entertainment purposes.

“Digital media and online usage is a controversial topic when it comes to its effect on mental health, with no real consistency of results overall,” Brannigan said.

“While these results are not causal or deterministic, our findings are an important first step on the path to revealing why these relationships exist. It will now be important to build on these findings and further investigate why digital media engagement may be related to mental well-being.”