Screen Time and Mental Health: It’s Complicated

Sifting the Evidence by Jasmine Khouja

Dr Suzi Gage hands over the Sifting the Evidence blog for a guest post from Jasmine Khouja to discuss the link between screen time and mental health from a paper published today.

These days it’s hard to escape using screen-based devices; many of us are glued to our smartphones, tablets and computers for pleasure and rarely take the time to consider what this may be doing to our mental health. Some experts believe that the more time you spend using these devices, the more likely it is that you will develop mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The results from our latest study provide some support for this theory but the link between screen time and mental health is far from straightforward.

In recent years there has been an increase in the recorded incidence of common mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression among children and adolescents. With more and more young people developing anxiety and depression, it is vital to understand what factors may play a role in their development. One possible factor could be excessive use of screen-based devices such as mobile phones, TVs and computers. The number of hours that young people are exposed to screen-based devices has increased rapidly over the past few decades which has led researchers to question whether the increases in screen time and anxiety and depression diagnoses may be linked.

Some studies have suggested that there may be a link between screen time and anxiety and depression but the findings have been inconsistent. Some have suggested increased screen time increases anxiety and depression, some have suggested there is no association, and some have suggested beneficial effects of increased screen time.

Recently, my colleagues and I at the University of Bristol, University of Liverpool, Bath Spa University and Swansea University have explored this link. We used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC a.k.a. Children of the 90’s) to observe whether increased screen time at 16 years old is associated with anxiety and depression at 18. ALSPAC is a study which recruited around 15,000 pregnant mothers who gave birth in the former county of Avon in the early 90s and has regularly collected information and samples from them, their children and family members for the last 28 years. Using data from this large study, we were able to look at whether screen time may affect later anxiety and depression while taking into account lots of other variables measured in ALSPAC, such as time spent exercising, which could also affect the likelihood that someone might develop anxiety or depression. Although a link was found between increased screen time (measured between 2007 and 2009) and both anxiety and depression, we still cannot determine from this study whether or not screen time causes the development of anxiety and depression.

It’s impossible to tell the mental state of this teenager using a smartphone from this stock photo. They might not even be a teenager.

In this study, we were specifically interested in looking at different types of screen time – television, computer and texting, and whether other activities were occurring less in the young people who were spending more time on screens. We found a weak association between computer use and anxiety and depression but no association with texting or watching television. Interestingly, we found that if we took into account the amount of time a teenager reported spending on their own, the association between computer use and risk of later anxiety (but not depression) was much weaker. We concluded that it is likely that the link between screen use and mental health is complex and dependent on other factors, such as the type of screen-based activity and the context in which screen-based devices are used.

It is important to note that although the study was published recently, the measure of screen time was collected around 10 years ago. Further research is needed to look at the same questions in a more recent cohort of young people as screen use has changed since then, with more use of smartphones, tablets and using multiple screens at once. Also, the activities people undertake on screens has changed, with the rise of social media, online gaming, and online gambling (for example). The use of smartphones and tablets was not assessed in this study and information was not gathered on the above types of screen-based activities. As such, the findings cannot be extended to these types of screen use or activities.

In short, the link between screen use and anxiety and depression is complex and continued research using more up-to-date data is needed.

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Jasmine Khouja is a PhD student at the University of Bristol researching the use of e-cigarettes among young people. This work was completed as part of her previous role as a research assistant for the Tobacco and Alcohol Group at the University of Bristol.  She is on Twitter at @Jasmine_Khouja



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