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

"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." Tribute from OFSTED to John Balding, presented at his retirement lunch, May 2005


"We use the data to inform whole school practice: Pastoral programmes for target groups of pupils; Items for discussion with School Council; Information to help us achieve the Healthy School gold standard; To develop and dicuss with pupils our Anti-Bullying Policy; Targeted whole class sessions with the Police Community Support Officers; To share pupil perceptions of all aspects of their school life with parents, staff and governers." 

Learning Mentor

"We did this last year with Year 8 and 10 and was incredibly useful. It is WELL worth doing and so useful to inform PSHE planning. The safeguarding audit team were delighted that we had done it. The findings are so so interesting.
"The findings are really comprehensive and range from what percentage of year 8 have breakfast in the morning to how many have tried this particular drug, to identity, health and sleep patterns, mental health, citizenship issues....
"It's essential for the PSHE and pastoral curriculum."

PSHCEE coordinator

"The data from last time were spot-on and we have done lots of work with it. We are very keen to repeat the survey." Headteacher


"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

"The Health Related Behaviour Survey is an incredibly useful resource for (us) as it provides schools, with invaluable data which can inform curriculum content, methods of lesson delivery and empower schools to better meet the needs of their pupils."

Health Education Advisor

"Many thanks for all of the fantastic information that you have sent to me over the years, it has really helped me to plan relevant courses for my students to follow and to help me to focus on the needs of the students I teach."

PSHE teacher

"You have made a truly significant contribution to health education and health promotion of young people in, not only England, but all over the United Kingdom and beyond." Colleague from NHS Scotland paying tribute to John Balding, presented at his retirement lunch, May 2005

NHS Scotland

"The system works and I find quite a lot of it useful in my work. I've also recommended it to others."

Teenage Pregnancy Manager

 “The (SHEU survey) helped us to prioritise where we needed to be in terms of PSHE education. We delivered assemblies based on the evidence as well as curriculum development, and dealt with whole school issues – particularly in regard to pastoral care. The answers received to the question on the survey “Who are you most likely to approach if you needed help” worried staff as “teacher” was not a popular answer. Subsequently the staff asked themselves why this had happened and what needed to be done to address the issue. There was more emphasis on wider aspects of PSHE education delivery, which needed more attention.

To summarise, the (SHEU survey) allows the PSHE department to assess the impact of teaching and learning and modify future lessons accordingly. It allows our school to look at whole school issues such as the extent to which the pastoral care system is meeting the needs of our pupils. It helps us to do need analysis of our pupils. It helps to provide important evidence for SEF / the extent to which we are meeting wellbeing indicators / National Healthy School standards.”  

Secondary School Head