Today you can do almost anything from your smartphone. You can watch your favorite movie, read a new book, buy a new outfit (or new wardrobe) and even order a full cart of groceries to be delivered your door. You can book a vacation, register for college courses, apply for a new job and schedule your annual doctor’s checkup all with the tap of a button. Not only does technology provide material items, it also connects us to other people via phone calls, email, text messaging, video chats and social media apps. And it’s not just limited to smartphones; many of us have multiple devices in the form of tablets, laptops, smart TVs, artificial intelligence (AI) devices and desktop computers that are accessible in almost every room and building we enter. Is this constant access to screens helping to support our mental health? Or is it providing an added source of stress and anxiety? Let’s take a look at a few ways our mental health is affected by screen time and technology use.
Oftentimes, technology and screens are being marketed to and used daily by children and adolescents. Research suggests there may be an increased risk for developmental delays in language acquisition and communication skills in young children who spend significant time in front of screens (i.e., 2-3 hours per day). As screens become more prevalent in daily life, the decrease in social interaction becomes more serious. When children grow into adolescence and young adulthood, having a solid foundation of interpersonal skills is very important for their development of healthy relationships with other people. If screens are prevalent in your life (or your child’s life), ensure that you’re still engaging in social interaction and connecting with others on a regular basis.
Many people use their screens right up until the moment they go to sleep, browsing social media, reading articles or watching their favorite show. Research suggests that increased screen time may be related to a decrease in both sleep quality and sleep duration. This is particularly noticeable for children and adolescents who have screens (TVs, computers, tablets) in their bedrooms, with access prior to them going to bed. Insufficient sleep, either in quality or duration, has been associated with worsening of many mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. Practicing good “sleep hygiene” by turning off (or limiting use of) electronic devices at least 15-30 minutes prior to going to bed may help prevent any negative effects of technology and screen use on sleep.
Social media is one of the primary reasons people are glued to their screens, especially smartphones. In some ways, this resource can support our mental health by allowing us to have contact with loved ones who we may not be able to connect with in person. There is, however, the component of social media that offers an easy way to compare yourself with others, such as an influencer or celebrity. You may be comparing yourself with an image of a person you’ve never met, who has a large social media following and appears to be living a picture-perfect life. Comparisons like this can contribute to low self-esteem, negative self-talk and body image issues. If you notice a pattern of feeling poorly about yourself while scrolling through social media, it may be time to change your routine by cleaning up your feed and spending less time on it.
Changes in Body Movement
Increased screen time typically means decreased time spent engaging in physical activity and body movement. At times it seems as though many people have traded active, outdoor adventures for video games and virtual reality simulators. However, we must also acknowledge the increase in virtual resources for body movement and the accessibility that has resulted from this. You can take virtual group classes with your local gym, participate in online yoga tutorials and even play movement-promoting video games like Just Dance and Wii Fit. These are wonderful resources for people who may not feel comfortable or safe leaving their homes for exercise, in addition to people who may require special types of activity that may not be readily available in their areas. Engaging in active, joyful movement each day is crucially important for both physical and mental health in people of all ages, whether you choose to engage in it outdoors or from the comfort and safety of your home.
Positive Effects of Technology
With ongoing developments in the world of technology, there are many positive outcomes related to mental health that are important to point out. The recent introduction of telehealth in many areas has made mental healthcare more accessible to people around the world, especially for those who may not have a number of resources in rural areas. Additionally, there are virtual resources and smartphone apps that can provide a line of support for those who need it. With a quick search, you can download supportive apps for depression, anxiety, PTSD and more. Many of these apps have been reviewed by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America for their effectiveness and ease of use.
Connecting with others has been made easier and more accessible for millions of people around the world, thanks to advances in technology. We can keep in touch with family on the other side of the country; have weekly video calls with a friend overseas; and attend reunions, gatherings and community events through a number of virtual outlets. Maintaining relationships with friends, family and the community can act as a huge support system for mental health, and it is because of technology and screens that we now have 24/7 access to the people and communities we value and rely on.
Screens: Good or Bad for Mental Health?
With so much information floating around, it’s become tough to figure out whether technology and screens are harming or benefiting our mental health. The answer to this depends on how you are utilizing your screen time. Are you using it to connect with family? Are you using it to access a mental health resource? Or are you using it to compare your life with influencers on social media, resulting in poor self-esteem? Technology is powerful in that it provides access to just about anything we can imagine. If we are mindful about our usage of technology and screen time, we can use it to support our mental health rather than harm it.
Madeline Radigan is a registered dietitian who works with adolescents in mental health residential treatment. She is passionate about advocating for weight inclusivity and a non-diet approach to help people heal their relationships with food and their bodies. In her free time, she enjoys being outdoors and spending time on trails with her family. You can find more of Madeline’s thoughts and work at radnutrition.net or on Instagram at @mradnutrition.