Photo illustration by John Lyman



Increased Screen Time May be Impacting Your Mental Health

As technology advances exponentially, screens have embedded themselves into the very fabric of everyday life. From computers, smartphones, and smartwatches to tablets and more, screens have become essential to many people’s daily routines.

Several studies have reported a significant increase in screen time since the pandemic, with one estimating a 60-80% rise compared to pre-pandemic levels. This heavy reliance on technology has ignited a lively debate about the implications — both positive and negative — of screen time on mental health.

Emerging from this debate are two clear and opposing stances. While some express concern about screen time’s negative consequences for mental health, particularly in children, others highlight its positive implications, suggesting it can promote strong mental health. A dialectical perspective grounded in clinical psychological science offers a unique angle on this debate, illuminating various perspectives on screen time and its influence on psychological well-being. This is especially pertinent as several states, including Florida and Texas, have introduced social media bans and restrictions for adolescents.

On one side of this debate are the individuals who feel strongly about the benefits of screen time and argue that it poses several advantages to mental health. To better understand this take, it is necessary to investigate the benefits of screen time on mental health. The ability to form communities, increase knowledge, and practice self-expression through screen time, all of which are important aspects of maintaining good mental health, is a central argument made by individuals who hold this viewpoint.

Screens have transcended geographical divides and revolutionized communication. With the uptick in social media platforms and chat apps, virtual spaces have been created for individuals to maintain existing relationships and create new ones irrespective of physical boundaries. It is widely accepted that humans are a social species requiring human interaction to fulfill several needs, including emotional needs. According to one study, online platforms allow for the facilitation of meaningful interactions that invite individuals to foster relationships without the pressure of being face-to-face. While not tested directly, it is possible that these benefits are particularly salient for individuals who identify as being introverted or who experience social anxiety, as it may be less intimidating to interact with others from a distance.

The digitization of knowledge has been an important aspect of disseminating educational resources, including information about mental health. Through a quick online search, individuals can access a plethora of mental health content in various forms, such as videos, guides, webinars, apps, and e-books. By interacting with such content, individuals can foster new lifelong habits that promote good mental health from the comfort of their homes. Additionally, telehealth has become increasingly popular as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a recent study revealing that providers treating mental health conditions saw a rise in telehealth claims from 1% in February 2020 to approximately 40% at the end of 2021. Utilizing telehealth therapy services for individuals who find in-person therapy intimidating or have trouble making time for therapy in their schedules may be a very convenient way to address and manage mental health concerns.

With the fast-paced nine-to-five workweek, screen time provides space for individuals to relax and wind down. A recent study found that participating in digital leisure was correlated with decreased odds of developing depression. For some, it may mean playing games on their tablets, while others may FaceTime a friend or simply browse the internet. Such activities allow individuals a way to temporarily detach from their surroundings, connect with others, and recharge mentally and emotionally. In doing so, people can return to their realities feeling mentally rejuvenated and more at ease.

In contrast to the stance that screen time offers a plethora of benefits for mental health, others argue that screen time is detrimental to mental well-being. The main reasons for this are largely related to the potential of screen time to perpetuate disruptions in sleep and physical inactivity and result in cyberbullying and tendencies to compare oneself to others.

In an age of instantaneous internet access, many people find it difficult to turn off their screens even at night. Prolonged screen time, especially before going to bed, has been known to have detrimental effects on the sleep cycle and cause sleep deprivation. It is widely known that sleep deprivation has been linked to several mental health conditions and symptoms, such as mood disturbances, cognitive impairments, and elevated stress. Therefore, while screen time may not directly cause such mental well-being problems to arise, it may lead to them by negatively impacting the circadian rhythm.

Consuming digital media has often left people with limited time to exercise. Excessive screen time has resulted in people adopting much more sedentary lifestyles, which has many negative consequences on health. Obesity, cardiovascular problems, and reduced endorphin levels are just some of the many detrimental physical outcomes that excessive screen time has been linked to. Research has shown that physical and mental health are strongly linked to one another in a bidirectional manner. Thus, screen time has the potential to directly impact mental health by negatively impacting physical health.

The virtual world, particularly social media, can house a great amount of negativity. Cyberbullying has emerged as a pressing concern, especially among youth. Numerous studies have emphasized the detrimental psychological effects of virtual harassment, especially in adolescents, where confidence and identity are still developing. Additionally, the near-perfect lives displayed on online platforms can lead to endless social comparisons, often resulting in feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. Such feelings have been shown to trigger and exacerbate issues with body image, resulting in conditions like body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and depression.

After understanding the main arguments from both sides of the screen time and mental health debate, it becomes apparent that the points raised by both groups hold scientific validity. In order to make sense of these points, it is necessary to use the truths from their arguments to view the bigger picture from a dialectical perspective.

Perhaps focusing on the amount of screen time individuals engage in is not the most indicative of negative consequences on mental health. While people should strive to stay within research-driven recommendations of healthy levels of screen time, putting an emphasis on the type of content that is consumed may have more implications on improving mental health. For example, a full-time student who spends 8 hours of screen time a day — spread out between taking digital notes during classes, completing homework, keeping up with world events, and talking to friends — may not necessarily experience significant tolls on their mental health when compared to an individual who scrolls online without intent and binge-watches television shows to avoid other responsibilities for the same amount of time.

The screen time debate does not have a one-size-fits-all answer. With there being both scientifically proven benefits and consequences of screen time on mental health, striking an individual balance between screen time and other activities becomes essential. People have many different reasons to use technology, and certain situations and needs will result in fluctuations in how much screen time an individual takes part in. Additionally, an individual’s age and personality can have major implications for what constitutes appropriate levels of screen time. Thus, expecting there to be uniform guidelines for all individuals across the board would be unrealistic and exclusive.

The realm of technology is constantly changing. As new platforms, gadgets, and technology trends come about, more research will be necessary to understand how engaging with them may impact mental health. While there is great debate about the implications of screen time on mental health, current research has proven that there are both notable mental health benefits and consequences of screen time. With this in mind, perhaps future research can focus on how technology can best be leveraged to amplify these benefits and lower the risk of consequences. Then, individuals can utilize these evidence-based recommendations to make their own informed decisions on how and to what extent they will engage in screen time, rather than individual states pursuing strict universal policies on social media usage.