3 min read

The truth behind screen time and mental health

The truth behind screen time and mental health

According to research published recently by Anglia Ruskin University, children aged between 6 and 17 increased the amount of time they spent looking at their phone screens by an average of an hour to an hour and a half during the lockdown caused by COVID-19.



The study went on to recommend that screen time should be reduced for everyone ( not just children )  in order to minimise the risk of experiencing negative outcomes, such as dietary disorders, poor sleep, a decline in mental health, and compromised eyesight. The report stopped short of making a direct link between those symptoms and extended screen use, but the debate around the impact on the mental health of excessive screen use has been a contentious one for a long time now.

So, what is the truth of the claim that spending too long looking at a screen is bad for your physical and mental health?

The answer, inevitably, is that it’s hard to reach an unequivocal answer because there isn’t yet sufficient evidentiary data to draw a compelling conclusion.

That said, it is possible to use the data and research that does exist to be able to form some educated opinion.

The reverse of the old piece of wisdom that dictates we should take everything in moderation is that overdoing most things is probably not good for you. As a rule of thumb to guide you, it’s quite useful – but it’s hardly science.


Most studies do seem to be overwhelmingly of the opinion that excessive screen time is likely to have a more negative impact on children than on adults, although this may be due in part to generational factors that mean today’s Boomer and Gen X adults grew up without mobile technology and are therefore less dependent on it.

But in general terms, the studies are conflicting, with some pointing to negative mental health issues, problems around lack of exercise and obesity, and anxiety, while others paint a more positive picture relating to increased creativity.


Put your phone away at night: 


Overall, most research agrees that everyone should put their phones away for at least an hour before going to sleep.

Studies prove that your device’s artificial blue screen light, which is designed to mimic daylight, can harm your vision when used excessively overtime at night and also plays havoc with the body’s circadian rhythm – its natural sleep/wake routine.

There’s also considerable evidence that shows people are more likely to ‘doom scroll’ at night. This is a now well-known tendency for people to surf an endless stream of bad or depressing news as a way of catching up on the day’s events.

Impacted melatonin levels from blue light exposure and doom scrolling have both been found to lead to very poor-quality sleep, which is shown to be a contributing factor to increased anxiety, stress, and poor physical health.




It’s not how long, it’s what you look at:


There have been many studies that have shown a correlation between social media and poor mental health.

The problem here is not so much the amount of time you spend on your phone, smart device, or computer, but rather the type of content you’re consuming when you do.

Social media sites – especially Facebook and Snapchat – have been roundly pilloried, for example, for the toxic environments they have created and, critics argue, done little to eliminate.

There are clear links to diminished emotional well-being and social media trolling or bullying. But studies have also found there are dangers around the anxiety and depression that the veneer of perfection those sites tend to peddle can trigger in others.




Screentime and negative self-image


More generally, there is a growing body of opinion that says the indirect consequences of extensive screen time are more likely to fuel mental health issues than the direct consequences of actually looking at the screen.

Put another way, rather than the potential negative impact of doom scrolling or spending more time than is healthy surfing Facebook contributing to a decline in mental health, it is the missed opportunities to achieve positive mental health that come with extended screen time that is likely to be more damaging.


This covers things like lack of exercise contributing to weight gain or obesity, which in turn impacts poor self-esteem. It also includes a lack of self-regulation in terms of online gaming or compulsive internet use, which can trigger anxiety and depression.


However, any discussion around the negative effects of technology must also be balanced with discussion around the positives. Screens offer many opportunities to improve self-education and grow social connections, while streamlined tools and processes that drive more efficient practices can work to create more leisure time.


In short, the screen itself is not the issue when it comes to mobile technology and mental health, but self-regulation and discipline are. Perhaps that ‘everything in moderation advice is the best rule of thumb after all. If you are not sure how to help prevent your child's screen time or your own contact one of our experts at your comms group today.

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