Global Health Blogs with Professor Swahn

Student Reflections on Topics Covered in our Class

Global Health Blogs with Professor Swahn

Screen Time and Mental Health Outcomes

March 2, 2021 · No Comments · Mental Health

               There has been a dramatic increase in the use of technology over the past decade. I occasionally witness, or even find myself involved in, discussions about the social and environmental changes youth today find themselves obliviously engaging in. In the 2000’s and early 2010’s, my peers and I were much more engaging with our physical environments. We enjoyed playing outdoors, having playdates at one another’s house, and using our imagination to create fun activities for ourselves. There was even a “Worldwide Day of Play” on one of the popular television networks (Nickelodeon) that encouraged children to go outside and play by halting their regular programming for a majority of the day.

Unfortunately, times are very different for today’s youth. With technological devices being overly accessible, children and adolescents indulge in “screen time” at unhealthy and alarming rates.

Before You Blame Screen Time For Teen Mental Health Issues, Read This

According to a 2018 study on Screen Time and Psychological Well-being, adolescent’s psychological well-being decreased after 2012. I distinctly remember this time period as there was an emphasized shift to using social media platforms among my peers, more specifically Instagram. There were social media apps and sites (Facebook, Myspace, Tumblr etc.) that previously existed before this year, however Instagram was in a lane of its own. I witnessed, and was a part of, the steadily growing dependence on smartphones. Retrospectively speaking, this was also the time I began to experience significant disruptions in my mood which affirms this study’s findings. According to the authors, adolescents that spend more time on electronic communication and screens (social media, the internet, texting, television, and gaming) and less time on non-screen activities (in-person social interactions, extracurricular activities, sports, and homework) have a lower psychological well-being. In contrast, adolescents that spend a small amount of time on electronic communication and screens were more content and happier. The rapid uptake of smartphones significantly contributed to the shift in adolescent’s use of time on non-screen activities to the extreme amounts of screen time we witness today.

Screen time and use is of significant importance today due to our current circumstances. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused laws and policies to be created (school closures, shelter-in-place orders, and social distancing implementation measures) to best promote citizen’s well-being and reduce the spread of the virus. However, the global lockdown orders have incited an increase in screen times and usage. In addition to the physical health risks (obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes) this may cause, there may also be some mental health risks such as an increase in depression, anxiety and even suicide within youth and young adults. Having to socially isolate and be unable to physically connect with friends and family members could result in negative mental health outcomes. There are free mental health educational resources and support services individuals can utilize to combat any of these issues, which is a positive screen time benefit. Georgia State University actually offers some of these resources at the counseling and testing center. Fifteen free counseling and therapy sessions are offered to students but only via telehealth, which is a contributing factor to screen time.

Virtual mental health support services are a great example of all screen time not being negative or yielding the same outcomes. Due to there being various types of screens (televisions, computers, tablets, cellphones) that can be used in a variety of different ways (watching films, playing games, reading books, using social media) the effects of screen time and screen use can be a bit conflicting. Each of these screens can have a different, unique impact on children and young adults. For example, using screens to communicate and connect with friends and family members can have a positive effect on one’s mental health. Though social media use has been reported to cause unhealthy comparisons, enable bullying, and increase exposure to negative content it can also have positive influences on youth. Some children have stated that it is a significant help to them in keeping in contact with their loved ones, strengthening their friendships, and allowing them the opportunity to explore new information, opinions, and perspectives.

However, numerous studies have reported that if used excessively screen time has been associated with negative mental health outcomes. In their 2018 article, Twenge and Campbell found that after 1 hour a day of screen time, any additional hours were associated with lower psychological well-being (less curiosity, lower self-control, increased distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, decreased ability to finish tasks). For adolescents aged 14-17 years old, users that had a screen time of more than 7 hours of day were more than twice as likely to receive a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, receive treatment from a mental health professional, or have taken medication for a psychological or behavioral issue in comparison to those adolescents that had a screen time of 1 hour or less a day. They also reported that adolescents that even had a moderate screen time of 4 hours a day also displayed an association with lower psychological well-being.

There are also age and gender differences in the effects that screen time have on mental health. For example, the associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being are more salient among adolescents than younger children. In a recent (2020) article Jean M. Twenge conducted with Eric Farley, it was reported that girls demonstrated stronger associations between screen media time and mental health indicators than boys. This finding validates Barthorpe’s article that also reported a greater amount of time spent on social media was associated with an increased risk of self-harm, depression, and lower levels of self-esteem in females.

Due to the significant negative mental health effects screen time has on youth, there are a few suggested ways to limit screen time to promote a healthy mental well-being.

For children:

  • For children under 18 months old, no screen time.
  • For children 18 to 24 months old, parents should choose only high-quality media and watch it with their child.
  • For children 2 to 5 years old, less than one hour per day of high-quality programming is recommended, with parents watching along.
  • No screens 1 hour before bedtime, and remove devices from bedrooms before bed.

For adults:

  • Use phone apps to remind you when it’s time to stop using the phone
  • Turn off the majority of your notifications
  • Delete your social media apps

Future guidelines and screen time plans could include virtual activities that promote physical activity, education, and socialization while still setting time limits to decrease the risks of mental distress. Credible, trusted organizations should implement policies that guide individuals and families on the optimal amounts of screen time to indulge in daily.


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