How much screen time is too much? It’s a pressing question for many parents of young children and teens, who have been inundated with warnings about the negative effects of digital technology use on mental health. But new research suggests the story is not as clear — or as dire — as many think.

Social media researcher Amy Orben of Oxford University says the concern about screen time that she hears in conversation and sees in the media isn't necessarily backed up by data. As a result, she often feels like she lives in two different worlds.

“I live in the world where I listen to the radio, and I watch TV, and I read the newspaper, and talk to other people in the street. And people are really concerned about social media,” Orben said. “On the other side, I live in the world where I work with these data on a daily basis, and I keep on finding that the effects aren't as severely negative as we would definitely expect it to be from the amount a public conversation we're having.”

In fact, Orben says, the research to date has been very contradictory. And that has added to parents' and policymakers' dilemma.

“On one day, you might read something that [says that] screen time is really, inherently bad and catastrophic for teen mental health,” said Orben. “On the other day you might read or listen to something that says it’s actually not that bad, or it's actually positive.”

Orben suspected that all the conflicting conclusions were, in part, a symptom of a much larger problem in psychology research, often called the replication crisis — how researchers analyze a data set can change the results they get.

To avoid this problem, Orben and her colleagues simulated many ways of analyzing three large, publicly available data sets — asking lots of different questions in different ways.

They found that digital technology use is associated with well-being among teens, but that the effect is not catastrophic. At most, they found, technology use explains just 0.4 percent of differences in well-being. Other factors, like adequate sleep, a supportive home life or bullying, are much more influential.

Orben says she thinks about digital technology like sugar. Too much is a bad thing, but the amount that constitutes “too much” is dramatically different for a diabetic, for example, than for an ultra-marathon runner. And there are different types of sugar and different ways in which it is consumed.

“Screen time is diverse, and children are diverse,” Orben said. “We should empower parents to do what parents do best, and that is to weigh the pros and cons, depending specifically on their child, with their child at the heart of the decision-making.”

Orben acknowledges this puts a lot of weight on parents, but she says that, for the moment, we don’t have the evidence to responsibly give parents a one-size-fits-all formula for a healthy digital childhood.