How Much is Too Much? Leveraging Existing and Emerging Large-Scale Social Data to Build Robust Evidence-Based Policy for Children in the Digital Age

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Oxford Internet Institute


The amount of time British children and adolescents spend on digital technologies has more than doubled in the past decade, and debates about the possible impact of excessive screen use are prominent in the scientific and policy arenas, as well as in the public press. The UK House of Commons, DCMS, and Science and Technology Select Committees, the Royal Society for Paediatrics and Child Health, and the UK's Chief Medical Officer have recently investigated whether the Internet, smartphones, digital games, and social media influence the health of children and young people. These initiatives, however, have all acknowledged the lack of scientific knowledge in this area-which stymies the efforts of UK policy makers to craft effective advice, regulations, and interventions.

This project aims-for the first time-to use existing ESRC datasets to generate the science required to ground policy in this area. We aim to provide policy-makers, parents, teachers, and GPs with the evidence required to understand the role digital technologies play in the lives of British children, and to highlight potential risk and resilience factors that could be the focus of future interventions. We will use ESRC data assets, advanced statistical approaches, and robust open science methodologies to answer three pressing research questions:

1. What risk and resilience factors predispose adolescents to experiencing an effect of digital technology use on their psychological well-being?
2. What are the directional links between digital technology use and psychological well-being, and do the risk factors identified play a mediating role in this?
3. What are the causal pathways linking risk factors, digital technology use and psychological well-being that can inform future intervention?

Answers to these questions are currently elusive, due to the poor data quality and methodological shortcomings that restrain research on technology effects. We will leverage our extensive experience working with large-scale social datasets to examine the general effects of digital technologies and more technology-specific effects (e.g. social media and gaming). We will use machine learning, network modelling, and advanced longitudinal approaches to pinpoint potential risk and resilience factors (e.g. social support, economic deprivation) that alter children's reactions to digital technologies, and which could help guide future technology policy. This will create different profiles of children that we can use to investigate the uses and effects of digital technologies over the longer-term-determining which possible technology effects (e.g. social isolation) are currently unevidenced and over-hyped, and which (e.g. poor sleep) deserve a closer look.

We will thoroughly document our methodology and publish each detailed analysis behind our findings. This transparency is almost entirely missing from the current scientific and policy debate. Making our code freely available will enable other research teams in academia, the charity sector and government to build directly on our work, facilitating a new kind of incremental knowledge transfer which has hitherto been missing, and providing a template for empowering all sectors, including charities, to make more regular use of ESRC data. Crucially, this work will inform how our team continues to advise draft guidance under development at the UK Ministry of Health, ongoing deliberations at the UK Council of Internet Safety, UNICEF, OECD, social enterprises like the ParentZone, and children's charities including Barnardo's-with whom we already have a strong relationship. Our work will also provide a lens to understand the effects of novel technologies such as VR and AI, which will soon be measured by ESRC data. While VR and AI are still under the radar of most academic and policy debate, they will increasingly enter the discourse in coming years.

Planned Impact

Social scientists have not, to date, provided educators, caregivers, or policymakers with the scientific evidence they need to set a coherent agenda for protecting and empowering young people in the digital age. We will engage those working in the media, charity, and government sectors, as well as those in the technology industry over the course of the entire project, leveraging our network of UK and global stakeholders to ensure the project generates maximum domestic and international public and policy impact.

Popular Media. We will work with the London-based Science Media Centre so that each academic paper is the focus of a 'research roundup' or press briefing. These events bring independent experts as well as health and technology editors of major British newspapers together to discuss the work, with the aim of providing high quality science communication to the public. These events will help editors understand what sets robust science grounded on ESRC data apart from work of lower statistical or data quality. We will also write editorials for lay audiences on The Conversation UK and the science blogging network Cosmic Shambles.

UK Charities. We will build on our existing relationships with the children's charities sector: ranging from Barnardo's, The Diana Award, and the PSHE Association to health organisations including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. All four charities have expressed keen interest in using our findings to shape their advice on digital technology for young people, including those from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds. Their experience with these populations will help us build statistical models for how these young people develop (or fail to develop) digital resiliencies to online behaviours such as bullying and social stigma.

International Policy. We will work with UNICEF's policy and research lead to draft and publish a white paper digesting our findings for global policy makers, including ministers, civil servants, and frontline services providers across the health, education, and development sectors. This will ensure our work-built on and citing ESRC data-will be widely read and fed directly into policy worldwide.

UK Government. The UK Government is currently undertaking multiple regulatory and statutory consultations aimed at safeguarding young Britons in the digital age. We already work closely with key stakeholders across these groups and have presented preliminary evidence using ESRC data to the evidence board of the UK Council of Internet Safety, as well as parliamentary committees for the DCMS, Department of Health, and directly to the UK's Chief Medical Officer. The CO-I has an ongoing relationship with political think-tanks and organisations like the Ditchley Foundation and the Adam Smith Institute; channels that will help us contact those politicians and policymakers interested in our work.

Technology Industry. The PI will build on his ties with major technology companies and trade groups to transmit project findings directly to the developers of technologies and online platforms used by young people. We will share our findings with the Safety and Well-Being teams at Facebook, the Policy and Well-Being teams at Google, and the Anti-Abuse and Community Management team at the gaming company Super Cell, and advocate data sharing between these technological platforms and UK research councils. We will deepen these existing relationships, meet with the executive team of the UK Interactive Entertainment trade group that represents UK video game developers, and will share our findings at the Annual Game Developers Conference to explore possibilities for data linkages between industry trace data and UK population cohort data. If successful, such a feat would greatly enhance both the scientific value and real-world impact of ESRC data resources for an expansive array of research questions.


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IJzerman H (2020) Use caution when applying behavioural science to policy. in Nature human behaviour

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Johannes N (2021) Video game play is positively correlated with well-being in Royal Society Open Science

Description Our results advance the field in two important ways. First, we show that collaborations with industry partners can be done to high academic standards in an ethical and transparent fashion. Second, we deliver much-needed evidence to policymakers on the link between play and mental health. Our work with secondary data in line with the proposal is ongoing.
Exploitation Route Too early to say yet, but we are hoping our collaborations might leverage the value of secondary data in coordination with industry data. We are also beginning to apply the advanced ML techniques to the data we identified in our proposal.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)

Description Aspen Digital - The Aspen Institute roundtable on digital well-being
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Description Bavarian State Government Select Committee Hearing
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Description Became member of British Academy Public Policy Committee
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Description Member of the ESRC New and Emerging Forms of Data Leadership Group
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Description Parliamentary Inquiry about Impacts of Living Online, House of Lords COVID Committee
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Description Participation in Wellcome Symposium on private-sector data in mental health research
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Description Jacob's Foundation Isolationtracker study
Amount SFr. 240,000 (CHF)
Organisation Jacobs Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country Switzerland
Start 03/2021 
End 03/2021
Title Video game play is positively correlated with well being (data and materials) 
Description This is the OSF project page for "Video game play is positively correlated with well-being". The project holds the raw data, the formr survey, and the source code for data processing and analysis. The source code is on Github, but archived here. For a detailed project description, please go to the Github page (third bullet point below). 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact People have never played more video games and many stakeholders are worried that this activity might be bad for players. So far, research has not had adequate data to test whether these worries are justified and if policymakers should act to regulate video game play time. We attempt to provide much-needed evidence with adequate data. Whereas previous research had to rely on self-reported play behaviour, we collaborated with two games companies, Electronic Arts and Nintendo of America, to obtain players' actual play behaviour. We surveyed players of Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons for their well-being, motivations, and need satisfaction during play and merged their responses with telemetry data (i.e., logged game play). Contrary to many fears that excessive game time will lead to addiction and poor mental health, we found a small positive relation between game play and well-being. Need satisfaction and motivations during play did not interact with game time but were instead independently related to well-being. Our results advance the field in two important ways. First, we show that collaborations with industry partners can be done to high academic standards in an ethical and transparent fashion. Second, we deliver much-needed evidence to policymakers on the link between play and mental health. 
Title Video game play is positively correlated with well-being (data wrangling and study code) 
Description Data analyses related to "Video game play is positively correlated with well-being" (Johannes, Vuorre, Przybylski, 2021) 
Type Of Material Data handling & control 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The data and code from this project has been downloaded at least 100 times since time of publication.