A new study claims a link between screen time and increased rates of depression and suicide in US teens. But what do the data actually say? And how can we move towards a more rational debate about digital technology?

Screen time is one of the more divisive contemporary issues in psychological science. In a sense, this is no surprise – smartphone use, particularly among children and adolescents, has consistently increased in recent years. And as with any new form of disruptive technology, there are questions around what constitutes healthy and maladaptive use, both at an individual and societal level.

The problem with the debate about screen time, however, is that very often the arguments devolve into overly-simplistic scaremongering claims. This peaked back in August, with the publication of an opinion piece in the Atlantic by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Under the headline Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, Twenge argued that teenagers are on the verge of a catastrophic mental health crisis, and the culprit was the smartphone.

Related: Screen time guidelines need to be built on evidence, not hype

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Mental health is a level of psychological well-being, or an absence of a mental disorder; it is the "psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioral adjustment".