By Dr. Sheri Jacobson
How much screen time is too much screen time?
Here in the UK, Ofcom found that by the age of four the average kid is spending three hours a day in front of a screen. If you are a teenager, that rises to almost seven hours daily.
How scared should you be about your screen time?
Reading popular articles about the effects of screens on your health is enough to give anyone an anxiety attack. While it has been found that using screens to learn can be beneficial, it’s when screens are used for entertainment or distraction that things gets worrisome.
Here are some talked about statistics:
- A 2015 Canadian study found that 75% of teachers feel that students ability to focus is dropping, plus students were not as good as being ‘resilient’ or bouncing back from challenges and were also less empathetic (aka, nice)
- Harvard University reminded us all that screen time was making us obese
- A 2015 Cambridge study declared that just an hour more entertainment screen time a day than other students leaves you to have a GCSE result that is a total of study nine points worse
- Chinese researchers started throwing around the term ‘digital heroin’.
Sound like scare tactics to you? Scientists in America and the UK protested just that (read an open letter from UK scientists here).
They argued that the idea of ‘screen time’ is too vague. It overlooks the importance of content and context (how the screens are being used).
Plus, many of the studies ‘proving’ the danger of screen time are done only using surveys, usually with small control groups.
“But before you decide not to worry at all about your screen use entirely, it pays to look at the neuroscience around screen time, and the ways that too much screen time affects your mental health.”
The real downsides of too much screen time
So what does science actually prove as downsides? And how do they lead right to depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems?
There are two big ways screens work to kill your sleep. The most worrisome is that digital devices use more short wavelengths of light than natural light. And this ‘blue light’ affects the way your brain creates the chemical it needs to sleep, called melatonin.
The other idea is that what we see on our phones, iPads or computers at nighttime tends to be too stimulating. A flirtatious text, an exciting movie… they are revving up your brain, not relaxing it.
“Sleep problems alone could account for all the side effects of screens that popular studies go on about. Not sleeping well means you can’t think straight, struggle with stress, and can be edgy with others (it’s hard to be nice when you are exhausted). And yes, sleep and depression are directly related.”
2. Screen time rewires your brain.
Here’s what truly is scary about screen time. Scientists are sure that screen time is rewiring our brains. They just don’t know quite how yet, or what the long-term results will be. So yes, we are all basically rats in a giant global lab at this point.
Don’t believe it? This 2014 study found that simply playing something as basic as Super Mario for half an hour a day over 2 months significantly changed grey matter. So God knows what virtual reality does.
3. THERE IS A CHANCE OF ADDICTION.
The research so far is mostly done on rats, but the risk is real.
The idea is that excessive stimulation (such as from screens) affects your dopamine levels. Dopamine is the ‘reward chemical’ of your brain. If it’s firing out too much, you can become addicted to it, and increasingly need the activity that gives you a ‘hit’.
And if you are still young, this sort of brain change will mean your brain circuits will be wired in a way you are more likely to be an addiction-prone adult with ADHD traits, all of which is connected to higher levels of anxiety and depression.
How screen time causes depression
Neuroscience aside, there are two obvious ways that too much screen time causes depression.
- It leads to less connection with others
- We can use screen time to avoid ourselves.
Barring the times we pore over social media with our friends, screens tend to be a solo venture. Even if we are watching a movie together, it’s an hour and a half of not communicating. And connection is now seen as the holy grail of good psychological health. A weak social circle is connected to loneliness, anxiety, depression, and even early death.
Screens are also the easiest way to distract ourselves in our modern world. We’ve all done it. I mean, who hasn’t had a bad exam result, a bad day at the office, a sudden breakup, and found themselves zoning out in front of a TV for hours?
“Feelings build up if we always use screens to escape feeling sad or angry. And things you avoid are going to lead to difficult experiences. The end result is often depression.”
So the next time you are in front of a screen ask yourself, what is my intention here? Am I here to learn something, connect with a real person, or am I seeking to zone out? And if so, what am I hiding from? Is there a better way to deal with this?
About Dr. Sheri Jacobson
Dr. Sheri Jacobson is the Clinical Director of Harley Therapy, a London-based counselling establishment committed to raising the standard of psychotherapy in the UK.
A senior therapist accredited with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Sheri has practiced in the private and public sector in and around London since 1999.
Passionate about de-stigmatising counselling and making mental health a positive mainstream topic, Sheri is a looked-to expert on therapy and wellbeing who has appeared in such media outlets as the Times, BBC News, Forbes and Bloomberg TV.
Sheri is also my oldest and dearest childhood friend. 😉
This is a big conversation. What are your thoughts? Do you notice screens effecting you and/or your kids negatively? I would love to hear from you.