How Screen Time Affects Mental Health

What are the effects on our brains when we overdo time spent viewing device screens?

AdventHealth, and Adventist Review
How Screen Time Affects Mental Health

With more of us than ever working remotely because of the pandemic, video conference meetings and virtual training sessions have become part of our daily routines. We see our colleagues two-dimensionally and even socialize with our friends on our screens rather than face-to-face. With screen time rapidly increasing in our world, what are the effects on our brains? 

Here is helpful information with support from Murtaza Syed, a board-certified psychiatrist and expert on mental health.

Where’s My Phone?

A study in 2018 showed that American adults spent between two and four hours per day on their devices, which added up to about 2,600 taps, swipes, touches, and types per day. When the pandemic hit in 2020, those numbers went up rapidly, given the need to replace in-person work and play with virtual alternatives.

The study also indicated that 73 percent of adults experience anxiety, even a mild state of panic, when they can’t find their phone, because we’ve become so entwined with our digital lives. Smartphones allow us to carry all of our social media addictions with us 24/7, so we always have these connections at our fingertips.

“While smartphones and other devices provide great benefits to our society, including during the pandemic, those benefits also come at a great cost to our mental health,” Syed said. “Overuse of devices is connected to increased levels of anxiety, depression, poor sleep, and increased risk of car accidents.”

Dopamine and Social Reward

Dopamine is a brain chemical linked to motivation. It’s released when we taste something delicious, after we exercise, and when we have positive social interactions.

“Dopamine basically rewards us for behaviors that benefit and motivate us to do them again,” Syed said. “The reward pathways become active when either anticipating or experiencing rewarding events. Every time a stimulus response results in a reward, those associations get cemented in our brains, so we want to keep doing them. Whenever we receive a ‘like’ or a kind comment on something we post on social media, we feel a sense of validation that isn’t always healthy.”

Since positive social experiences release dopamine, those experiences are transferred to the virtual world through our devices and social media platforms. Each text message, email, and “like” on Facebook or Instagram becomes a positive social stimulus that makes us keep craving more.

Syed explained, “While all of this may seem harmless on the surface, these cravings for virtual stimuli set us up for screen addictions and take the place of healthier, face-to-face interactions with friends and loved ones, time spent outdoors, and doing other things.”

Effects of Too Much Screen Time

The amount of time you spend on your devices impacts how much sleep you’re getting. “The blue light emitted from your screen interferes with the production of melatonin, a sleep hormone. Using your devices before bedtime makes it more difficult to fall asleep,” Syed explained. Cutting unnecessary screen time and refraining from using your devices around bedtime are good solutions for better sleep.

Even though we’re using our devices primarily to socialize, we’re still doing it alone and separate from others. Having fewer real-life interactions leads to less practice, more social anxiety, and loneliness.

Too much screen time affects your ability to register and process emotions. Desensitization to violent content, for example, is a concerning side effect of a weakened emotional judgment. Exposure to violent media content can also increase aggression levels and affect one’s level of empathy.

Spending long hours staring at a screen also takes a toll on your body, especially your eyes. “Too much screen time not only strains your eyes and dries them out but can also lead to stress on the retina and affects visual acuity,” Syed said. Also, being constantly hunched over to look at devices impacts your posture and can cause stiffness and pain in your neck and shoulders.

Too much time spent in the virtual world can have a negative impact on how you perceive yourself. The time you lose that could have been spent on forming relationships with others, discovering passions, honing your skills, and experiencing new things leads to a weakened sense of self-identity and confidence.

“We often compare ourselves to others through social media. This does nothing other than decrease our self-worth, because what we see others post on social media is far from a reflection of their true character and lifestyle,” Syed said. “It’s important to remember that others’ online profiles are a curated snapshot — not a full picture of real life’s imperfections and challenges.”

Healthy Alternatives for a Whole Life

If you think you’re spending too much time in front of your screens beyond what is necessary for work, there are some simple changes you can make to lessen your devices’ hold on you.

Optimize your environment by keeping your smartphone out of your bedroom, designating the dining table as a screen-free zone, and seeking other activities to relax are easy ways to eliminate temptation and teach yourself healthier avenues to experience life.

The original version of this story was posted on the AdventHealth blog.

AdventHealth, and Adventist Review