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Well-being in the Digital Age

Striking Connections Between Screens and Mental Wellness

Since the early 2010s, screen use has increased significantly with the rise of smartphones and similar digital tech that enables easy access to entertainment media, such as the Internet, social media, video games, and online movies and videos. Because of the portability of these devices and their addictive qualities, their use has skyrocketed among all age groups, particularly in young people who, due to immature brain development, have limited ability to self-regulate.

Indeed, it appears that this increased time staring at a glowing screen may come at a cost to mental health.

Digital Age Mental Health Trends

Since the uptick in smartphone usage, research has shown that indicators of psychological wellness such as happiness, self-esteem, and life satisfaction have decreased, and more serious challenges to mental health have emerged. Anxiety and depression are at an all-time high among college students, with rates increasing year after year. Utilization of college counseling services has increased by a whopping 30 percent in recent years. For those of us working on mental wellness in the college community, there has never been a busier time.

But it’s not just the college kids who are suffering. What is notable and troubling is that an increase in distress is occurring in the pre-teen and teenage years. While one study indicated a 37 percent increase in teens diagnosed with depression since the rise of our digital culture, a more recent study showed a significantly higher increase – 63 percent – in just the last few years. There also has been a startling spike in non-suicidal self-harm (cutting, burning, and other forms of self-injury) and suicide rates, which are up 30 percent for males and 50 percent for females, according to the CDC.

Naturally, significant changes like this prompt questions and a search for answers by the public health and education fields. While it is possible that factors other than screen use are causing these changes in mental health, researchers haven’t found them yet. In the absence of other factors, we would be unwise not to consider the impact of screens on mental health, especially when nine hours a day for teens and six hours a day for tweens is considered average for time spent consuming entertainment media alone, according to Common Sense Media.

Screen Use as a Risk Factor for Mental Health Issues

While definitive long-term evidence that screen time alone is responsible for this decline in mental health is not yet available, emerging research and clinical experiences certainly point to a strong connection. There is a growing body of research demonstrating a link between high screen use and a variety of high-impact mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, suicide, and non-suicidal self-harm, as well as factors that can contribute to mental health problems like loneliness, (which is at an all-time high), envy, low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, low life satisfaction, sleep problems, attention issues, and low academic performance. Also troubling is the evidence that high screen time can cause brain changes and negative cognitive effects, which also can compromise mental health.

Jean Twenge is a psychologist and researcher who studies mental health trends across generations with her colleagues. In a recent study, her team examined the time teens spent on screens versus non-screen activities in conjunction with suicide and depression data since the rise of the popularity of the smartphone. The researchers found that adolescents, as a whole, have spent more time on screen activities like social media, Internet use and video games, and less time on non-screen activities, such as exercise, homework, employment, in-person social connection, extra-curricular activities, volunteering, and religious and faith activities. Their work suggests that this shift away from non-screen activities to screen activities has had a notable impact on mental health. According to the study, “Adolescents who spent more time on screens were more likely to have high depressive symptoms and at least one suicide-related outcome compared to those who spent more time on non-screen activities.”

How We Spend Our Time Matters

As someone who works with distressed college students and is experienced in treating anxiety and depression, I regularly see the link between high use of digital screens and its effect on mental health. Students who spend more time on screens (particularly the Internet and social media apps) are exposed to more risks and stressors such as cyberbulling, negative feedback or being ignored, social comparison, fear of missing out (FOMO), sleep deprivation, normalization of risky behavior, pornography, harsh news, social isolation, and distraction from academics and other values and goals. And they spend less time on things that promote wellbeing – like face-to-face social connection, extracurricular interests, reading for pleasure, focused attention on academic work, quiet reflection, exercise, and time outside in nature. The tradeoff of increased digital stressors and decreased wellbeing factors does not bode well for mental health in young people, or anyone.

How we spend our time and where we place our attention matter. Many non-screen activities cultivate skills and interests and offer experiences that contribute to personal growth and provide a sense of meaning and purpose, all of which enhance psychological wellbeing.  By contrast, multiple hours spent scrolling through social media, contemplating which posts might fill more empty hearts on Twitter or Instagram or garner more “Likes” on Facebook, binge-watching Netflix and YouTube, and playing video games, while entertaining, are not likely to produce the same robust internal rewards.

Instead, many screen activities can serve as tools for avoidance and procrastination. For many people, screen use has become a primary way to cope with life’s challenges, a mindless digital escape. This practice can stymie personal growth and lead to increased screen use and feelings of emptiness, depression, and regret for time wasted.

Less Screen Use Can Mean Greater Wellbeing

While it appears that high screen time may have negative consequences for mental health, research also shows that decreased usage can lead to positive mental health effects.  For example, in a study of Facebook users, those who stopped usage showed an improvement in mood and life satisfaction after one week. This research is encouraging and echoes what I’ve heard from clients who intentionally reduce their screen use. Without exception, I have yet to encounter someone whose sense of wellbeing did not improve after a mindful reduction in screen time and increased time and attention on healthy and meaningful pursuits in the real world.

The Way Forward

Although more research is needed to examine the effect on screen use and mental health as well as other factors that could be contributing to the decline in wellness, the information we do have is valuable and certainly warrants attention. Indeed, how we spend our time and where we place attention may be keys to combating mental health risks in the digital age. Therefore, mindfully reducing screen time and prioritizing time for in-person social connection and other meaningful activities are likely to increase wellbeing in people of all ages. In other words, the next time you feel the urge to check Instagram or Facebook, try taking a walk or reading a book instead!

Nina Schroder, MSW, LCSW is a mental health therapist at Virginia Commonwealth University. She specializes in the treatment of anxiety and depression and researches the effects of high screen use on mental health, emotional resilience, and overall wellness. Nina is passionate about helping others increase emotional resilience and wellness in the digital age, and delivers lectures and workshops both locally and nationally. She lives in Richmond with her husband and two young children.
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