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It’s not a surprise that so many of us spend quite a bit of time looking at screens. Whether on computers or our phones, there’s so much information and entertainment available online today that screen time is on the rise.
Almost 31 percent of American adults said they were “almost constantly” online, according to a 2019 Pew Survey.
But after spending so much time on screens, maybe you find yourself feeling more down or sad than usual. Or maybe you’ve become more anxious or worried after looking at a screen.
Depression and anxiety are two common mental disorders that affect millions of people of all ages and backgrounds every year. Both can interfere with everyday activities and negatively impact your quality of life.
So, are there associations between screen time, depression and anxiety? Does the duration of screen time or even excessive screen time affect mental health? We’ll explore the connection between screen time and mental health as well as ways to improve both.
Before we get into the association between screen time and depression as well as screen time and anxiety, an introduction to these two mental disorders can help you better understand them.
Depression isn’t just periodically feeling sad or down but rather a serious mental health disorder that affects someone’s everyday life. Rather, major depression — simply referred to as depression — is a persistently low or depressed mood along with other depressive symptoms that lasts for two weeks or more.
Some common symptoms of depression in women can include:
A constant feeling of sadness or emptiness
Irritability or frustration
Disinterest in typical activities or hobbies
Trouble sleeping or oversleeping
Unplanned weight changes
Thoughts of death or suicide
A person experiencing depressive symptoms may also have a diagnosis of anxiety disorders at the same time. 60 percent of those with anxiety disorders have symptoms of depression as well.
Obsessive thoughts you can’t control
Feelings of panic and excessive worry
Shortness of breath
While the exact causes of both these mental disorders aren’t known, there are many possible factors, from genetics to stressful life events and environmental factors.
So, is there an association between depression or anxiety disorders and screen time specifically?
We’ve probably heard about the physical effects daily screen time can have, such as headaches and eye strain. There’s also information about the effects of excessive screen time on children and adolescents.
But there’s not a ton of data on what excessive screen time does or doesn’t do to adults and their mental health. There are some studies on the short-term effects of screens on adults though.
While there can be a positive association to spending time on screens — funny videos, interesting articles or keeping in touch with loved ones — looking at a screen can worsen your mood.
A 2017 study of screen time and depression found that adults who watched TV or used a computer for more than six hours per day were more likely to experience moderate to severe depression.
The amount of time spent looking at screens while using social networking sites can also affect your mental health.
A study of adolescents under the age of 17 found that the teens who used social networking sites more overall as well as at night experienced higher levels of anxiety and depression.
If you’ve already been given a diagnosis of anxiety, looking at screens could worsen symptoms as a 2020 study found that longer use of social networking sites may also be associated with increased symptoms of social anxiety — a type of anxiety disorder.
Excessive screen time can also lead to sedentary behavior — sitting and lying down for long periods where you’re not engaging in a lot of physical activity. In turn, high sedentary levels are linked to a higher risk of depression.
So what is the exact connection between screen time and anxiety or depression?
Electronic screens are fairly hard to avoid in our world today. But how much time we spend each day on screens can worsen mental health issues.
Screen-based activities like social media can give us an unlimited amount of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Rewarding social stimuli — positive recognition by our peers or messages from loved ones — releases dopamine, the body’s “feel good” hormone.
However, when social networking sites don’t provide us with positive social stimuli, we’re not getting as much dopamine from one source.
Low levels of dopamine can cause low self-esteem, anxiety, social withdrawal and other depressive symptoms.
The time of day of screen time can also have an impact on mental health.
One study from 2014 shows that the use of screens before going to bed can disrupt sleep cycles, partly by suppressing melatonin. Poor sleep quality is related to mental health conditions, including depression.
Fortunately, there are ways to treat and manage mental disorders like anxiety and depression.
Although screens may seem unavoidable, you don’t have to suffer from anxiety or depression.
Most mental illnesses can improve over time when properly treated. Typical treatment for both disorders may involve medication, psychotherapy and lifestyle changes, such as reducing screen time and doing more non-screen activities.
Looking at screens first thing in the morning or right before bed could potentially set a negative tone for the rest of your day and disrupt your sleep.
Try leaving your phone in another room or a drawer when you go to bed and use an old-school alarm clock.
Instead of reaching for your phone first thing when you wake up or before going to sleep, start a morning or evening ritual that can get you ready for the day or relaxed before bed.
Lifestyle changes are one way to manage and possibly reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms so limiting the amount of time spent looking at screens could be a good first step.
If you find that you have excessive screen time use, taking a step back could benefit your mental health, especially if you’re feeling more anxious or depressed afterward.
A small study involving 154 participants found that even taking a one-week break from social media could lead to significant improvements in rates of depression, anxiety, overall well-being.
You don’t even have to go completely cold turkey. Simply setting a timer or installing an app to track how long you spend online can help you cut back.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is often the first line of treatment for anxiety and depression among adults and others.
One common form of psychotherapy used to treat both conditions is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioral therapy involves identifying unhealthy thoughts and behavior patterns and learning healthy ones instead.
Therapy isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment for mental health. A mental health professional will work with you to provide the most suitable and effective option for your symptoms and needs.
By spending time away from screens, you can decrease your anxiety or depressive symptoms.
Physical activity is a great all-natural stress reducer and spending time outside can keep you away from screens.
You can also time away from screens to read more books, try puzzles or pick up new or restart old hobbies such as painting, drawing, scrapbooking or whatever interests you.
Although medication doesn’t cure anxiety or depression, it’s often used to help manage and keep symptoms under control.
Your healthcare provider may recommend using medications such as:
Benzodiazepines for anxiety
Beta-blockers for anxiety
Relaxing has been proven to help with anxiety.
Although research is somewhat limited, there seems to be an association between screen time and depression and anxiety.
The types of things you view on your screens — negative content, bad news, certain social media posts, etc. — can negatively affect your mental well-being, but so can the times of day you access your screen, like right before bed.
Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to help lessen your screen addiction, as well as cope with mental health issues, whether they’re spurred on by screen time or not. Things like psychotherapy, medication, limiting your screen time or even practicing relaxation techniques like yoga and mindful meditation can all help.
Screens may be everywhere, but they don’t have to dominate your visual landscape.
And if you’re looking for some more assistance, you can use your screen to start a consultation with a mental health professional to talk more about the effects screen time has on you.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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