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How do Screens impact mental health?

In today’s digital age, screens are an ubiquitous part of our lives. From smartphones to laptops to TVs, most people spend several hours engaging with screens each day. This high level of screen time has led many to question and study how all this screen exposure could be impacting our mental health.

How Much Screen Time is Too Much?

With screens being so embedded into modern life, what constitutes “too much” screen time? Unfortunately there is no definitive consensus on a recommended limit for daily screen time. However, most experts agree that:

  • Children under 2 years old should have no screen time at all, other than video chatting.
  • For children ages 2-5, limit screen use to 1 hour per weekday and slightly more on weekends.
  • For school aged children and teens, restrict leisure screen time to under 2 hours per day.
  • For adults, aim for under 10 hours of recreational screen time per day.

These limits are suggestions rather than hard rules, but give a good benchmark to aim for. It’s also important to take into account that not all screen activities are equal – creative activities or online learning may have more value than passive consumption of media and entertainment. The key is balance and ensuring screen time does not overtake more active pursuits.

Negative Mental Health Impacts

Excessive screen time, especially if it involves exposure to harmful content, has been associated with a variety of negative mental health outcomes:

  • Depression and anxiety – Multiple studies find correlations between high social media usage and depression/anxiety in teens. However, there is debate around whether pre-existing mental health conditions drive increased social media use, or if high use exacerbates symptoms.
  • Sleep problems – Blue light emitted from screens suppresses melatonin production, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. Teens who spend 3+ hours on devices daily are more likely to get insufficient sleep.
  • Self-esteem issues – Young people who spend lots of time editing and filtering selfies to post may develop unrealistic expectations of beauty, damaging self-esteem.
  • Attention problems – Heavy and constant digital stimulation can decrease attention spans, reduce focus, and promote quick, superficial thinking.
  • Loneliness – Replacing in-person socialization with screen-based communication can reduce relationship satisfaction and leave people feeling isolated.

Protective Factors

On the other hand, some aspects of screen use and digital technology can benefit mental health and wellbeing. Protective factors include:

  • Staying connected – Video calls enable remote communication and help people maintain social connections and relationships.
  • Access to support – People can join online mental health communities to find help and feel less alone.
  • Stress relief – Moderate gaming or video streaming for entertainment can provide relaxation.
  • Knowledge – The internet facilitates learning, growth and access to health information.

With mindful use focused on these positives, digital media can be harnessed in a healthy way.

Tips for Healthy Screen Use

Here are some tips to help manage screen time in a way that protects mental health:

  • Turn off notifications and avoid distractions while working or spending time with others.
  • Charge devices outside the bedroom so screens don’t interfere with sleep.
  • Set a bedtime alarm to stop using screens 1 hour before bedtime.
  • Download apps to monitor and set limits for time spent on certain sites/apps.
  • Designate tech-free times or days to take periodic breaks from screens.
  • Replace mindless scrolling with more intentional activities like reading or hobbies.
  • When using social media, avoid comparing yourself to carefully curated highlights of others.
  • Balance online interactions with in-person social activities.
  • Model responsible screen habits for children.

How Parents Can Help Children Build Healthy Screen Habits

For parents trying to instill healthy screen habits in kids, experts recommend:

  • Establish clear rules and limits for screen time from an early age.
  • Designate media-free locations/times at home like during meals or in bedrooms.
  • Avoid using screens as pacifiers when kids are upset or bored.
  • Set parental controls on devices and use kid-friendly web browsers.
  • Preview games, apps and sites before kids use them to check age-appropriateness.
  • Talk to kids about appropriate online behavior and safety.
  • Try to consume media together and discuss content to support learning.
  • Be role models by managing your own screen time healthily.

Proactively building these habits early on helps ensure screens enhance, rather than inhibit, children’s wellbeing.

Signs Screen Use May Be Unhealthy

Watch for these red flags that indicate technology use may be unhealthy:

  • Declining academic performance or problems focusing at school
  • Withdrawing from in-person social activities and relationships
  • Losing interest in hobbies or sports previously enjoyed
  • Increasing isolate or secretive screen use
  • Irritability, anxiety, depression or other marked mood/behavior changes
  • Inability to control use or becoming distressed when devices are unavailable
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, weight change, or sleep disruption

If you notice several of these issues, it’s wise to consult a mental health professional. Problematic internet use may require evaluation and tailored treatment plans.

The Bottom Line

Screen time is a complex issue without a one-size-fits-all prescription. Overall evidence suggests:

  • Excessive screen exposure, especially passive entertainment media, can negatively impact mental health.
  • Intentional, moderate use focused on communication and learning has cognitive benefits.
  • Parents play a key role in instilling healthy habits and monitoring children’s technology use.
  • Awareness and balance are critical – screens should enhance life, not overtake it.

Rather than completely rejecting or uncritically embracing new technologies, we must learn to harness them wisely. With care and caution, screens can be calibrated to enrich our lives and support wellbeing.

Age Group Recommended Max Screen Time Per Day
Infants and Toddlers Under 2 None, except video chatting
Children Ages 2-5 1 hour, slightly more on weekends
Children Ages 6-12 2 hours of recreational use
Teens Ages 13-18 2 hours of recreational use
Adults 18+ 10 hours of recreational use

Key References

  • Twenge, J.M., Hisler, G.C., & Krizan, Z. (2019). Associations between screen time and sleep duration are primarily driven by portable electronic devices: evidence from a population-based study of U.S. children ages 0–17. Sleep Medicine, 56, 211–218.
  • Orben, A., Dienlin, T., & Przybylski, A.K. (2019). Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(21), 10226-10228.
  • Farooqui, A. A., Pore, V., Baxi, S., Gupta, L., Sharma, D., Gupta, V., … & Manchanda, S. (2021). Screen time usage among children during COVID-19 pandemic: An alarming concern. Journal of Tropical Pediatrics, 67(5), fmaa140.
  • Jones-Jordan, L. A., Hu, J., Chan, D., Schultz, A., Kaufman, L., & Stamm, K. (2021). The impact of excessive screen time on mental and physical health of children and adolescents: a systematic review. Clinical pediatrics, 60(5), 269-282.
  • World Health Organization. (2019). Guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under 5 years of age. World Health Organization.