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Too much screen time associated with poorer mental health

One of the most troubling trends in the health care space in our country is the prevalence of mental health issues among our youngest generations. Disproportionately, Millenials and Generation Z are affected by rising mental health issues and a higher incidence of self-inflicted harm. In previous writings (see here, here, and here), I have written about my theory for why such a phenomenon is happening: too much screen time. 

Recently, two more pieces have been published that shed some more light on this issue to help us better understand the link between screen time and mental health issues. 

The first, a research piece published by BMC Psychiatry, conducted a meta-analysis of 41 studies that collected self-reported mental health outcomes from 2011-2017. The researchers were interested in the relationship between “problematic smartphone usage” and mental health outcomes. They found that among the individuals across all included studies, “problematic smartphone usage” was found in one our of every four respondents, and this was “accompanied by an increased adds of poorer mental health.” Poorer mental health outcomes included: “depression; anxiety; high levels of perceived stress; and poor sleep.”

The second piece is a NY Times article that discusses some of the current research and theories about this phenomenon. Here are some excerpts: 

In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that after a stable period from 2000 to 2007, the rate of suicide among those aged 10 to 24 increased dramatically — by 56 percent — between 2007 and 2017, making suicide the second leading cause of death in this age group, following accidents like car crashes.

Along with suicides, since 2011, there’s been nearly a 400 percent increase nationally in suicide attempts by self-poisoning among young people. “Suicide attempts by the young have quadrupled over six years, and that is likely an undercount,” said Henry A. Spiller, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center, who called the trend “devastating.” “These are just the ones that show up in the E.R.”

Although no one can say with certainty why suicide has become such a crisis among the young, experts cite several factors that parents, schools and others might be able to modify or control. Dr. Spiller, for example, attributes the rise in suicide attempts largely to the effects of social media and how teens and young adults communicate with their peers.

“Kids now never disconnect,” he said. “They’re connected 24/7. They go to bed with their smartphones. It may be cyberbullying. It may be envy. Maybe many things are going on here.”

The rise in attempted and completed suicides by young people correlates directly with their access to smartphones, Dr. Twenge said. “Developmentally, these ages have always been difficult, but that’s been taken to the next level by smartphones, social media and the constant pressure to be online.”

“Eighty-five percent of teens are looking at social media,” she said. “There’s less face-to-face time spent with friends. It’s now the norm to sit home Saturday night on Instagram. Who’s popular and who’s not is now quantifiable by how many people are following you. Kids are spending as much as eight hours a day on social media, where there’s a lot of negativity, competition and jockeying for status and unfiltered access to sites that tell them how to harm themselves.”

High rates of mental health issues among the country’s youngest generations are a complex issue. I believe we are only starting to realize the extent of this issue, and won’t be dealt with quickly. However, there is one thing that researchers are beginning to agree on: too much screen time is probably a bad thing for young people. 

Jordan Roberts / Health Policy Analyst

Jordan joined the Locke Foundation in the summer of 2018 as Health Care Policy Analyst. He analyzes state and national health policy issues with an eye toward removing governm...

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