On average in the United States, teenagers spend about nine hours per day watching (or using) screens. From gaming consoles to tablets, smartphone scrolling to TV binges, screens have become a prominent part of adolescents’ every day lives. And while screens provide great entertainment, and are often educational, research is now proving that there is such thing as too much. For young people especially, too much screen time can have negative effects on the brain, mental health, and sleep patterns.
As we’ve written about before, adolescence is a critical time for brain development. The parts of the brain dedicated to memory, decision-making, and emotional regulation are still maturing during the teenage years. As such, a heavy reliance on screens during this dynamic period of development can have serious, negative consequences over time.
The Effects of Screen Time on the Teenage Brain
The National Institute of Health (NIH) agrees that too much screen time can cause physical changes to the brain. The brain’s cortex is still developing in adolescence, and anything you experience can affect its development. Healthy, hands-on experiences, like participating in sports or playing music, can positively impact the brain’s progress. Screens, when used appropriately, can also help to build problem-solving skills. But a heavy reliance on screens, or using them absently to fill time, during the teen years can actually hinder the cortex’s growth.
A study called Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD), for example, found that some youth who use screens more than seven hours a day had a thinner cortex than those who used screens less.
On top of disrupted brain growth, screens are also notorious for overloading the sensory system, impairing attention, and depleting imagination in young people. Because screens are so engaging and stimulating, children and teenagers who spend time on screens are typically much less interested in other, non-electronic activities like getting outside or socializing with peers. Because of this, too much screen time can also reduce creativity in youth. As Michael Rich, pediatrician and director at Boston Children’s Hospital, explains, “Boredom is the space in which creativity and imagination happen,” and screens disrupt that space, impoverishing our sense of stimulation and exploration.
Adolescents, due to their stage of development, are very sensitive to the effects of screen time on the brain. On top of this, because teenagers do not have a fully-matured system for self-control, they have trouble stopping obsessive screen time or scrolling behaviors.
The Effects of Screen Time on Teen Mental Health
Screen time affects teen’s brain development, and it can also affect the state of their mental health. According to the NIH, “Scientists are still studying the link between screen time and mood. But some studies link higher levels of screen time to increased symptoms of depression.”
On top of this, studies have shown that excessive screen time has led some teens to neglect their daily responsibilities, use screens as a coping mechanism for stress, and to feel anxious without a device. This is especially relevant, with American teenagers facing an unprecedented mental health crisis. It’s estimated that 42 percent of adolescents in the U.S. are suffering from mental health issues today.
While research is still developing, there are a few known reasons why screen time disrupts teen’s mental health. For one, it has to do with a lack of sleep.
The Effects of Screen Time on Sleep and Mental Health in Teens
Heightened screen time, due to blue light exposure, suppresses the release of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is essential for your body to fall and stay asleep. Teens who scroll their phones, watch TV, or even play video games before bed will end up staying awake longer due to this hormonal effect. This is coupled with the fact that screens are overly stimulating, and therefore increase cognitive alertness, no matter the time of day.
When teenagers lack adequate sleep, which is between 8 to 10 hours a night, a series of negative effects can take place. Sleep deprivation in teenagers can weaken the immune system, as well as lead to reduced brain function and the inability to concentrate and remember things. It can also trigger feelings of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and other mental health concerns. Thus, screen time indirectly can create mental health problems in teens, due to a lack of sleep.
The Effects of Social Media on Teens’ Mental Health
Screen time is often synonymous with social media, with two-thirds of teenagers now using TikTok (and the majority using it every day). About 60 percent of teenagers use Instagram and Snapchat, too. However, research has also connected social media usage to poor mental health. With teenagers having glimpses into the “good life” of their peers and influencers, it creates a culture of comparison and leads many teenagers to experience feelings of inadequacy, self-esteem issues, and fear of missing out.
The constant need to be connected to social media – as teenagers are inherently social beings – also plays a role. Due to their lack of complete self-control, they do not always know when to switch off social platforms. However, this fixation often creates a sense of anxiety in teens, who feel they need to be constantly online and up-to-date.
When teenagers continuously scroll their feeds instead of getting good sleep or carrying out positive, hands-on tasks, their mental health will eventually take a toll. Other factors of their life may also be affected. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry summarizes it well, stating that excessive screen time can lead to:
- Disrupted sleep problems
- Lower grades in school
- Reading fewer books
- Less time with family and friends
- Not enough outdoor or physical activity (60 minutes per day recommended)
- Weight problems
- Mood problems
- Poor self-image and body image issues
- Fear of missing out
- Less time learning other ways to relax and have fun
Making the Most of Screen Time with Your Teenager
As parents, it’s normal to worry about the amount of time your teenager spends on their phone or in front of the television. After all, experts recommend they get active at least 60 minutes a day! While screens can be a positive asset for learning and entertaining, there should be boundaries set around them. Setting limits in your home can help to promote better mental health and physical health for your teen, and mitigate the negative effects detailed above.
Here are some tips on how to make the most of screen time, and set limits for your teen:
- Track your teen’s screen time using an application, if possible. Try to limit this to a reasonable number of hours per day.
- Prohibit screens in the bedroom, or make a plan to shut off all screens at least 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
- Schedule time for activities that do not involve screens, like getting outside or spending time with friends. Set an example for your teen, and encourage them to do the same.
- Help your teen get active. Exercise has a natural way of releasing feel-good hormones in the body and promoting better mental health overall.
- Have open conversations with your teen. Ask them questions about what they are doing on their phones, or how a certain show, game, or even social media platform makes them feel. Do they feel anxious or stressed by screen time? Keep these conversations going to ensure they are interacting with screens in a positive way.
There are many modern factors that can impact teenager’s mental health, triggering feelings of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. Screen time is just one of those many factors. If you are concerned about your teenager and their mental health, do not wait to intervene. Keep in mind that their struggles may go beyond the screens. Contact a mental health treatment professional to schedule an evaluation for your teenager. Or, reach out for advice on how to help them cope.
Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment provider for young adults and adolescents. We are here for you. Call 877-581-1793 to learn about our programs.