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The effect of screen time on mental health

Posted on: December 14th, 2015 in Children, Mental Health No Comments

As technology continues to intertwine with our lives and embed itself into our most basic routines, concern over its consequences has gradually grown. Due to the field’s focus on change and innovation, this potential risk is also highly ambiguous. Current research shows that the psychological effects of screen time may vary depending on the type of activity being performed and can even affect the mind indirectly through other factors such as sleep.

The link between screens, sleep and mental wellness

One detrimental influence of technology is how it affects sleep. According to Mariana Figueiro, Ph.D., a researcher from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, the light emitted from televisions, computers or other electronic devices can affect people’s sleeping patterns, and consequently, their health. Previous research has established the foundation of the body’s internal clock, also known as circadian rhythm. Through intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGC), human beings respond to lowers levels of light in the evening and begin releasing the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin.

Figueiro’s latest studies have discovered that ipRGCs are most sensitive to blue light, which is commonly featured on digital screens. A particular experiment demonstrated that adults who used iPads at full brightness for at least two hours at night had a noticeably decreased rate of melatonin release. In addition, adolescents were shown to be much more sensitive to this effect. Another analysis showed that when compared to adults, teenagers experienced larger decreases in melatonin production with only one-tenth of the light exposure received by their elder counterparts.

Similar evidence of this effect was detailed by the National Sleep Foundation. In their 2014 Sleep in America Poll, the organization found that keeping devices on even some of the time significantly impacted a child’s average amount of quality of sleep. The graph below depicts the marked shifts in excellent and fair/poor levels of rest when devices were left sometimes on or always off.

(The National Sleep Foundation)

This effect on sleep has massive implications on the human mind. Harvard Medical School’s 2009 mental health letter connected these dots by declaring that, “Chronic sleep problems affect 50 percent to 80 percent of patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared with 10 percent to 18 percent of adults in the general U.S. population … studies in both adults and children suggest that sleep problems may raise risk for, and even directly contribute to, the development of some psychiatric disorders.”

Technology’s direct effect

Other academic sources have found that technology’s influence on individuals is more straightforward. For example in 2002, Tetsuya Nakazawa, M.D., and other researchers from Chiba University in Japan examined more than 25,000 workers over a 3-year period with the goal of identifying any significant health symptoms associated with computer use. Through a questionnaire, the investigators determined that workers exposed to more than five hours of visual display exposure each day had higher levels of mental and sleep-related issues, while physical problems rose without any threshold.

A 2013 study conducted by Alison Parkes, Ph.D., and her team from the University of Glasgow uncovered similar results. Parkes and colleagues surveyed the mothers of 11,014 children from ages 5 to 7 and observed that specifically watching TV for three hours or more predicted a small increase in conduct problems in contrast to watching for under an hour. The research also cited previous findings where high levels of screen time were moderately associated with behavioral and emotional issues in youth.

Over recent years, Psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., has also proposed the classification of a new disorder in children she calls electronic screen syndrome  (ESS). ESS is characterized by persistent stress, erratic moods, disorganized or oppositional behaviors, sleep problems, learning difficulties and overall poor self-regulation. Dunckley explained these effects with previous cases of brain-imaging research. These neurological scans showed that people dealing with internet and gaming addictions were afflicted with:

  • Gray matter atrophy, which results in processing problems in areas such as planning, prioritizing, organizing and impulse control.
  • Loss of white matter integrity, which diminishes and compromises communication throughout the brain.
  • Reduced cortical thickness in the frontal lobe, which also impairs cognitive task performance.
  • Reward system dysfunction, which is most notably seen through decreased dopamine receptors and increased cravings.

Needed progress in the field

Peter Etchells, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in biological psychology, considers these new developments with a grain of salt. In an op-ed piece written for The Guardian, he suggested that research into the long-term effects of device usage still has a number of elements to take into account. In addition to differentiating each of its types, the entire concept of screen time must be better defined. He said, “… there is – or should be – a distinction between passive and active screen time. Along these lines, a systematic review from 2010 pointed out that active video games actually promote light-to-moderate physical activity in children.”

Although topics such as Internet and video game addiction are gaining prominence in society, research is also showcasing the raw impact that visual displays can have on the mind. At Sovereign Health, we treat a wide variety of behavioral health issues that may result from technology overuse. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental illness, substance abuse or multiple disorders, contact one of our representatives online or by phone to receive immediate assistance.

Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer

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