Lifestyle: Mental-Health Effects of Constantly Being Online

Lifestyle: Mental-Health Effects of Constantly Being Online

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“Kids these days are always looking at their screens.”

It’s a common refrain from adults,but data shows kids aren’t the only ones racking up hours staring at screens.

According to a 2019 Pew Survey, 28 percent of American adults said they were “almost constantly” online, up from 21 percent in 2015.

About half of young adults ages 18 to 29 said they go online “almost constantly.” This is 9 percentage points higher than it was in 2018.

While we know too much screen time can harm a child’s brain, there’s not a ton of data on what it does or doesn’t do to adults. Still, there are some studies on the short-term effects of screens on adults.

The good news is it’s not all bad.

A surge in screens

It’s not surprising that adults are spending more time looking at screens.

In the last decade, more and more Americans have purchased smartphones, enabling them to have nearly uninterrupted access to screens. This means that friends, family, and employers can have constant access to us.

Only 35 percent of American adults owned a smartphone in 2011, according to another Pew survey. In 2019, that shot up to 81 percent.

“Everyone is basically carrying a mini-computer all the time,” says Dr. Zlatin Ivanov, a New York-based psychiatrist.

In the last 15 years, Facebook has gone from a platform for college kids to a mainstay for 69 percent of adults.

Though it may seem like social media (and being able to text at will) helps people feel more connected, the data is mixed on whether that’s true.

Screen time and depression

Cat memes, comedy shows, and the ability to talk to a friend with a tap can make people smile. But the truth is that looking at screens for several hours per day can worsen a person’s mood.

Researchers in a 2017 studyTrusted Source found that adults who watched TV or used a computer for more than 6 hours per day were more likely to experience moderate to severe depression.

The constant connectivity may actually be making us feel disconnected, says Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell Medical College and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.

“Loneliness has to do with more connected intimate relationships that feel real and close, and screens don’t really provide that… and yet people are replacing time invested in real relationships with screen time,” Saltz says.

Ivanov cautions screens are taking us away from the real relationships in our lives.

“Spending extensive hours in front of the computer and smartphone affects your personal life, family, kids, any relationships,” he says.

Screen time is also a sedentary behavior, and high sedentary levels are linkedTrusted Source to depression.

The bright side of screen time

It’s not all bad news when it comes to screens.

In a 2019 study, Michigan State researchers found adults who used social media were less likely to experience psychosocial distress, which is a hallmark of major depression and anxiety.

“Using a screen to… keep you connected to people you have built a relationship with as a bridge is a more positive use of screens than just scrolling through Instagram or things that don’t enhance your relationships,” Saltz says, adding the latter can induce fear of missing out.

In other words, it can be beneficial to use Facebook to catch up with a friend from across the world — as long as it’s not interfering with making in-person plans with other people.

Screens at bedtime

Sleep deprivation is related to mental health conditions, including depression.

One study from 2014 shows that the use of screens before going to bed can disrupt sleep cycles, in part by suppressing melatonin.

“Smartphones have blue light that is emitting from the screen, which is tricky and damaging if you do that at nighttime, because it may trick your brain into the belief that it is still daytime,” Ivanov says.

Ivanov recommends reading a book rather than something on a phone or tablet before going to sleep.

Get empowered around screens

Not all screen time is avoidable, as many adults use computers for work 8 or more hours per day, 5 days a week. And as researchers have found, some social networking can be a good thing.

How can we ensure our screen time experience is positive, or, at the very least, reduce the risk of negative effects?

For starters, Saltz suggests taking small breaks throughout the day if your job is mostly screen-based.

“Get up, walk around,” she says.

Tools to track screen time

It may seem counterintuitive, but apps and other tools on our devices can help us track and limit screen time.

Screen time report

If you use an iPhone,you’ll get a screen time report with the average time spent per day on your phone and how that compared to last week.

The Apple report breaks down time by category (like social media versus reading and reference) and allows you to schedule downtime and set app limits.

You can also see this information in the settings of most Android devices.

Wearable reminders

Many wearables provide reminders for movement breaks.

For instance, Apple Watch will let you know every hour if you haven’t stood and moved around for at least 1 minute. Consider it a reminder to take a break.

Fitbit also provides reminders to get in your daily steps and move around.

AppDetox

This app for Android users allows you to set rules and limits for app usage. It keeps you honest with reminders when you break them.

Blue light-blocking glasses

A small study found that wearing blue light-blocking glasses helps filter blue light, thereby increasing melatonin and helping you sleep better.

Takeaway

Although much of the research on screen time is centered on children and adolescents, adult screen time is rising too.

Although some social media use seems to relate to lower levels of anxiety and depression, there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Taking small breaks throughout the day and using apps to track and limit screen time can help minimize negative effects. Finding a balance is the key to using screens in a healthy way.