Is too much screen time bad for mental health?
Dr. Suzi Gage contributes to our #Co90sDiscoveries by discussing whether screen time is making young people's mental health worse.
Anxiety levels among young people are on the rise, at a time when many are spending long periods of time online, watching TV and using mobile phones. Is too much screen time to blame for poor mental health in young people? Our findings show the relationship is more complex than this and more research is needed.
Screentime versus time spent outdoors?
To understand the links between mental health and screen time, researchers looked at data from Children of the 90s detailing the health and lifestyle of around 15,000 children who were born in and around Bristol in the early 1990s.
In 2007, when participants were aged 16, they completed a questionnaire about how long they spent using computers, mobile phones and watching television. Two years later, aged 18, the same participants responded to questions to measure symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Our vast storehouse of data also included information on these participants’ exercise habits, creative activities, how much they played outdoors, the time spent on homework and time spent alone – giving researchers more context for their study.
“We were really interested in learning what young people weren’t doing while they were using their screens, to see if this was important. For instance, were they missing out on spending time outside or socialising?” says Dr Suzi Gage, honorary lecturer at the University of Liverpool, who was involved in the study while at the University of Bristol alongside co-researchers from Bath Spa and Swansea universities.
Correlation and context
The study found young people who were using their computers more had increased levels of anxiety and depression, but this may have been related to the amount of time people were spending alone. Watching TV or texting had very little association with poor mental health.
“Before we blame screens for a rise in poor mental health, it’s really important to consider what people might be missing out on when they are using screens,” says Dr Gage, a psychologist and epidemiologist who explores the links between lifestyle behaviours and mental health.
These findings conform with what many experts say is unfounded hype around screen time. Many are calling for a more holistic understanding of adolescent mental health.
Dr Gage is among a group of multidisciplinary scientists and researchers are calling for a more evidence-based approach to policies around digital technology and mental health.
Recognising the importance of digital technology to children’s lives in the 21st century, the international group of academics urged policymakers to take a more balanced approach in considering the context and content of screen time. They argue that an overly simplistic focus on the quantity of time spent on screens is not enough to guide the decisions of policy or parents in the interests of young people.
Urging funding bodies and governments to invest in more research, the group wrote: “For guidelines to have a meaningful impact, they need to be grounded in robust research evidence and acknowledge that children’s health and wellbeing is a complex issue affected by many other factors, such as socioeconomic status, relational poverty, and family environment – all of which are likely to be more relevant for children’s health and well-being than screens.”
What we discovered
- Young people who were using their computers more had increased levels of anxiety and depression, but this may have been related to the amount of time people were spending alone. Watching TV or texting had very little association with poor mental health.
- There needs to be a more balanced approach in considering the context and content of screen time. An overly simplistic focus on the quantity of time spent on screens is not enough to guide the decisions of policy or parents in the interests of young people.