Goldilocks is online

Update June 2019: I turned this blog post into an article, which is a bit more up to date:

I was particularly interested to hear the exchanges on a BBC programme:


A year or so ago, there was a startling article by Jean Twenge in The Atlantic, asking, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

There is a cynical rule of thumb which says, any question in a headline can be answered in the negative, but Twenge's article was based on her recent book, which was wide, deep, and scholarly, and associated the rise of smartphones with an increase in depression among young women, and I know from bitter experience that writers don't get the last say on the headline.

Nonetheless, it's very hard to tease out cause and effect, and to disentangle the often modest effects of social media use on wellbeing from everything else, like poverty or austerity.

The same year, Przybylski and Weinstein published a large-scale analysis of the What About Youth? data set, finding that the highest wellbeing scores were found for modest amounts of time spent online. Lots of online time was associated with poorer wellbeing, but those who spent no time online also had lower wellbeing scores than those spending a bit of time online. They suggest that a middling amount of involvement with social media might be most desirable -- neither too little, nor too much, but just right -- as Goldilocks might have concluded.

Przybylski AK & Weinstein N (2017). A Large-Scale Test of the Goldilocks Hypothesis: Quantifying the Relations Between Digital-Screen Use and the Mental Well-Being of Adolescents.  Psychol Sci, 28:204–215.

The WAY? sample was a postal self-report study of 15-year-olds, and produced oddly low figures for smoking, but it was large, nation-wide, carefully designed, and the authors did their best to control for confounding effects, so I don't see any reasons there for rejecting the idea.  In fact, I was interested recently to explore it with a large sample of young people from a SHEU study in one local authority, and found that Goldilocks is online there too: the highest average wellbeing scores are seen for those spending modest amounts of time online.

Mean wellbeing scores (SWEMWBS) of Year 10 females in one local authority, 2018, by time spent the previous evening on the Internet (on any device) or using a 'phone (for talking/texting).

The same pattern is seen if we select from the sample just those students who live with both parents at home. We also see the same pattern in most deprivation quintiles, although some of the samples become rather small and thereby wobbly.




Comments about SHEU

"I really think that the HRBQ is a wonderful piece of work in terms of getting useful information for so many different organisations in one go." Healthy Children's Research and Statistics Officer

Research and Statistics Officer

"The Unit is to be congratulated in preparing ... material of the highest standard and worthy of wide dissemination." National Association for Environmental Education

National Association for Environmental Education

Any comments on specific survey questions that may have caused difficulty?
Pupils at our primary school found the questionnaire very easy to understand and most of them completed the questions in less than 45min.


"I very much value the contribution the Health Related Behaviour Survey has made to the public health agenda and feel confident it will continue to do so." Tribute from a Director of Public Health to John Balding, presented at his retirement lunch, May 2005

Director of Public Health

Any comments on specific survey questions that may have caused difficulty? No problems. My children were fully briefed before the survey and they understood that they could miss questions if they did not want to answer them. We did not have any children with any concerns regarding the survey at all.

Any comments on the use of the web site? No it was easy to use.

Any general comments on the exercise? The children really enjoyed completing the survey, It has lead to many positive discussions about our health and how we all have slightly different experiences and home lives.

Class teacher

"We were talking about (the SHEU survey) data at our recent NSCoPSE Conference, for PSHE advisers and consultants. It would be really helpful if some of this powerful data and the trends could be shared in the consultation around the PSHE Review. Colleagues shared their very positive experiences of (the SHEU survey). It provides excellent evidence of behaviour change for children and young people and of the impact of PSHE and wider interventions."

Personal and Social Development Consultant

"Over the last twenty years you have achieved much. The surveys and subsequent reports have painted the clearest picture we have of what young people are doing and what they think." OFSTED 1998


I've just spent a really interesting half an hour reading through our ...survey (report). Always food for thought and a good way to look at how we can improve.


"We have never consulted our young people like this before. The survey makes a great contribution to our 'best value' planning." Sports Development Officer

Sports Development Officer

"You and the team have the evidence to show how young people's behaviour has or hasn't changed over time." 
Tribute from a Health Education Co-ordinator to John Balding, presented at his retirement lunch, May 2005

Health Education Co-ordinator