3. Liu, M., Wu, L., & Yao, S. (2015). Dose-response association of screen time-based sedentary behaviour in children and adolescents and depression: a meta-analysis of observational studies. Br J Sports Med, 50, 1252-1258.
It is important to note that a great many of the studies that look at screen use in children and young people are cross-sectional, meaning they look at the characteristics of a group at a single point in time. This can make it difficult to draw firm conclusions about whether screen use causes certain outcomes, or if children who are more likely to use screens frequently, are also more likely to experience various physical and psychological outcomes because of another common factor.
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1. University of Bristol. "Screen time linked to psychological problems in children." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 October 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101011085958.htm>.
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Younger kids also showed differences in their behavior, however. Preschoolers who spent more time on screens were twice as likely to “often lose their temper” and 45 percent more likely to be unable to calm down when excited.
The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.
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What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.
Using screens for communicating and connecting with friends and loved ones may be beneficial for some children and young people.
What is less clear is whether screen time is causing mental-health problems or if children with worse mental health spend more time with digital media.
To those of us who fondly recall a more analog adolescence, this may seem foreign and troubling. The aim of generational study, however, is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.
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Abducted in Plain Sight was first released as a documentary in 2017 with the title Forever ‘B,’ but it’s gained rather more traction this month after being added to Netflix’s true-crime library. Over the past week, viral tweets and Reddit threads and various expressions of incomprehension have batted around the internet, as viewers try to make sense of what exactly they’ve just watched. Much of the outrage targets Jan’s parents, who participated fully in the documentary, and whose behavior in response to Berchtold’s prolonged abuse of their daughter strikes many viewers as shockingly inadequate at best. Jan—now Jan Broberg Felt, an actor who’s appeared in Criminal Minds and Everwood—has subsequently defended her mother and father.
Once, she told me, she was hanging out with a friend who was texting her boyfriend. “I was trying to talk to her about my family, and what was going on, and she was like, ‘Uh-huh, yeah, whatever.’ So I took her phone out of her hands and I threw it at my wall.”
Even after only one hour of screen time daily, children and teens may begin to have less curiosity, lower self-control, less emotional stability and a greater inability to finish tasks, reports San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge and University of Georgia psychology professor W. Keith Campbell.
“In the short term, I might be distracted by the games, but this leads to increased feelings of depression in the long term because I’ve sat around all day without getting anything productive done,” Dr. Jones explains.
Curious, I asked my undergraduate students at San Diego State University what they do with their phone while they sleep. Their answers were a profile in obsession. Nearly all slept with their phone, putting it under their pillow, on the mattress, or at the very least within arm’s reach of the bed. They checked social media right before they went to sleep, and reached for their phone as soon as they woke up in the morning (they had to—all of them used it as their alarm clock). Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to sleep and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke in the middle of the night, they often ended up looking at their phone. Some used the language of addiction. “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it,” one said about looking at her phone while in bed. Others saw their phone as an extension of their body—or even like a lover: “Having my phone closer to me while I’m sleeping is a comfort.”
This trend has been especially steep among girls. Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys. Girls use social media more often, giving them additional opportunities to feel excluded and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them. Social media levy a psychic tax on the teen doing the posting as well, as she anxiously awaits the affirmation of comments and likes. When Athena posts pictures to Instagram, she told me, “I’m nervous about what people think and are going to say. It sometimes bugs me when I don’t get a certain amount of likes on a picture.”
Depression and suicide have many causes; too much technology is clearly not the only one. And the teen suicide rate was even higher in the 1990s, long before smartphones existed. Then again, about four times as many Americans now take antidepressants, which are often effective in treating severe depression, the type most strongly linked to suicide.
The content on the screen matters just as much as the amount of time spent on them. Teens grow up looking at airbrushed models on Instagram or seeing friends doing something fun without them. Dr. Scallon warns that some then perceive their own life as unglamorous in comparison.
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When spending too much time with screens is the issue, it can be difficult coming up with a plan to reintegrate the electronics after treatment. Rogers asks parents to set limits on device use, remove certain devices from the house, and to lead by example.
Many of the concerns around screen use relate to sedentary (or inactive) behaviour. The idea being that time spent in front a screen is time that is not spent exercising or doing other forms of physical activity. Sedentary behaviour may be associated with poorer physical health, wellbeing, and mental health4 and some research has connected screen use to increased sedentary behaviour in children.5
I realize that restricting technology might be an unrealistic demand to impose on a generation of kids so accustomed to being wired at all times. My three daughters were born in 2006, 2009, and 2012. They’re not yet old enough to display the traits of iGen teens, but I have already witnessed firsthand just how ingrained new media are in their young lives. I’ve observed my toddler, barely old enough to walk, confidently swiping her way through an iPad. I’ve experienced my 6-year-old asking for her own cellphone. I’ve overheard my 9-year-old discussing the latest app to sweep the fourth grade. Prying the phone out of our kids’ hands will be difficult, even more so than the quixotic efforts of my parents’ generation to get their kids to turn off MTV and get some fresh air. But more seems to be at stake in urging teens to use their phone responsibly, and there are benefits to be gained even if all we instill in our children is the importance of moderation. Significant effects on both mental health and sleep time appear after two or more hours a day on electronic devices. The average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices. Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits.
Some of the confusion around the effects of screen use in children may also be due to how quickly technology has developed. There are now many different types of screens (televisions, computers, tablets, mobile phones) which can be used in many different ways (watching films, playing games, reading books, using social media). This means when we talk about 'screen use' in children and young people, we can be talking about a huge range of activities, each of which may have a unique impact.
Mental Health And Screen Time
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Also timely: the World Health Organization this year decided to include gaming disorder in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases. The organization is encouraging "increased attention of health professionals to the risks of development of this disorder" as gaming addiction may now be classified as a disease.
Today’s teens are also less likely to date. The initial stage of courtship, which Gen Xers called “liking” (as in “Ooh, he likes you!”), kids now call “talking”—an ironic choice for a generation that prefers texting to actual conversation. After two teens have “talked” for a while, they might start dating. But only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.
Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.
Teens spending seven hours per day on screens were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, compared to teens who spent just an hour on screens.
Social-media companies are of course aware of these problems, and to one degree or another have endeavored to prevent cyberbullying. But their various motivations are, to say the least, complex. A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers “tools to target people based on their emotional state.”
This doesn’t always mean that, on an individual level, kids who spend more time online are lonelier than kids who spend less time online. Teens who spend more time on social media also spend more time with their friends in person, on average—highly social teens are more social in both venues, and less social teens are less so. But at the generational level, when teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common.
There are many factors that lead to the development of mental illness, such as anxiety disorder and depression. Since anxiety disorder and depression aren’t caused by a biological problem with the brain, a chemical imbalance, or genetic problem, most of the causes are preventable.
This shifting relationship has been suggested by some researchers to be a result of screen use having a 'U-shaped' relationship to health and wellbeing, where using screens for low to moderate amounts of time can have neutral to positive effects but using screens for an excessive amount of time may begin to have negative effects.1,8,11,14