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How excessive screen time affects mental health

The connection between excessive screen time and mental health issues

Many parents and guardians have asked at one point or another, “How do I get my teen off their phone?” The same goes for any technology addiction, from playing video games to watching videos on tablets to interacting on social media. It seems like there is always time for screen time­ — but where do you draw the line? And, what happens if you suspect your teen has mental health struggles as a result of too much technology exposure?

The screen time problem and mental health

We all have seen it, teens with some sort of technology glued to their hands, heads down, seemingly all consumed by what’s happening on the screen. We’ve probably even seen younger kids with devices at the dinner table or in the car to occupy their time. Not only are children and adolescents using technology for important purposes including school, but more leisure time is spent with screens.

This constant exposure to smartphones, computers, TVs, tablets, and gaming consoles can severely impact mental health. It can increase stress and anxiety, cause behavioral dysregulation, decrease social abilities, and impact sleep.

Recent studies show mental health impact due to technology addiction

A recent study led by faculty at the Yale Department of Psychiatry and Columbia School of Nursing analyzed screen media activity in over 5,100 youth. The study, which was the largest analysis of brain development in children, found that youth who spent the most time on digital technology exhibited higher levels of depression, anxiety, social anxiety, aggression, defiance, and bullying — even up to two years after the dependence. The study concluded an “association between frequent screen time and mental health problems was mediated by specific changes in brain development.”1

Another study led by university professors found that high users of screens ages 14-17 years old were twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety, treated by a mental health professional, and taken medication for psychological or behavioral issue.2

The findings of both studies are especially important to understand. The brain is being physically changed as a result of excessive screen time. The psychological impact is real — and lasting ­— so, what can we do to help stop the excess and help those who already face mental and behavioral health problems?

How much screentime is too much screentime?

The aforementioned study on the associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being categorized high users of screen time at 7+ hours per day, moderate users around 4 hours per day and low users at 1 hour per day2.

The American Academy of Pediatrics screen time guidelines are moving away from a set number of hours a day that is “healthy” or “safe” to be interacting with screens. Two hours per day for children older than five was the recommendation.3 The new recommendation is to develop a family media plan to set priorities based on needs and time of year.4

Navigating the online world while supporting mental health

Parents and guardians trying to help today’s young people navigate an online world are ill-equipped to do so simply because they didn’t grow up with similar experiences. They don’t have moments to recall to help connect with their kids and give helpful tools, guidance, and rules around screen time. If you are a parent or guardian to a child or adolescent, following the American Academy of Pediatrics media guide can be helpful. The National Alliance of Mental Illness, or NAMI, also has tips on how to manage screen time and support good mental health.5

It is important to note that even if you limit screen time for a child or adolescent, they could still experience behavioral or mental health challenges. It’s important to talk to a professional if a child is struggling.

What to do if you suspect your child has mental health challenges

If you’re past the point of adjusting screen time to set healthy boundaries, a bigger conversation needs to be had. Talk to your child to find out how they are feeling. It’s also important to keep track of symptoms you’re noticing, from the child being withdrawn or aggressive to losing friends or being more anxious than normal. When the interpersonal relationship as well as external relationships are impacted, it’s time to seek help.

Look for a program that offers a range of behavioral and mental health services. Integrated health programs ensure a person is completely cared for overall — not just one piece at a time. It’s also vital to find a program that has licensed mental health professionals working with individuals. Their team can help determine the severity of the child’s challenges and make recommendations for inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Even adults turn to cell phones or tablets during the day. We check email, follow the news, find out the daily weather, and so on. It’s not uncommon for adults and youth alike to rely on technology during the day. In fact, it’s understandable. What’s tricky is determining where we draw the line.

For more help with behavioral and mental health — whether screen time was or was not the catalyst — Nexus can help. Reach out to learn about our programs.


1Yale School of Medicine, Study Probes Connection Between Excessive Screen Media Activity and Mental Health Problems in Youth

2Preventive Medicine Reports, Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study

3American Academy of Pediatrics, Screen Time Guidelines

4American Academy of Pediatrics, Family Media Plan

5NAMI, Tips on Managing Your Screen Time for Good Mental Health

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