Learn about the possible side effects of too much screen time and how to find digital balance in your life.
- A study from the University of Arizona showed teens who were addicted to their smartphones also showed signs of depression.
- Some research has shown that teen phone use negatively affects sleep, which leads to depression and anxiety.
- The National Sleep Foundation recommends avoiding screen time at least 30 minutes before bed.
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These days, smartphones are ubiquitous. They seem to be in the hand of every individual, young and old — that subtle blue glow is always reflecting off their eyes as they scroll, text and swipe.
This technology, which sometimes seems like magic, has completely changed our lives. It's easier than ever to find information, purchase items and communicate with people around the world.
Lately, though, it feels like our phones have been even more front-and-center in our lives. Whether it's another virtual video happy hour, telehealth visits with our doctor or ordering groceries, technology has been a big part of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Sure, this technology has been incredibly helpful over the last few months. But are there adverse effects, too? Read on to learn more about the side effects of too much phone use and how you can take steps to find digital balance in your life.
What the research says
While more research is needed to examine the effects of smartphones on adults, there have been several studies looking at the relationship between devices and young people. However, most studies haven't been able to show a direct connection between digital devices and mental health.
Recent research from the University of Arizona showed that adolescents who were dependent on or addicted to their smartphone were more likely to show signs of depression and loneliness. Researchers are still determining why that relationship exists.
A 2018 survey sponsored by Hopelab and Well Being Trust showed that teens and young adults (14- to 22-years-old) had mixed feelings about social media use. Respondents who had symptoms of moderate to severe depression said they were more likely to feel left out when they use social media, or think that others are doing better than they are.
“The increase in screen time during the pandemic, while pretty much mandatory, may be causing stress in adolescents and teens,” says Robin Henderson, PsyD chief executive, Behavioral Health for Providence Oregon. “But working to find healthy boundaries with technology is a step in the right direction for developing good mental health at a young age.”
Phones and sleep habits
While scientific studies haven't found many direct relationships between digital devices and depression, research has shown that they can hurt mental health because of how they impact sleep. A 2017 study from the Journal of Child Development found that smartphones can cause sleep problems in teens, which led to depression, anxiety and acting out.
Phones cause sleep problems because of the blue light they create. This blue light can suppress melatonin, a hormone that helps control your natural sleep cycle.
To help avoid technology disrupting your sleep, the National Sleep Foundation recommends you stop using phones, computers or televisions at least 30 minutes before bedtime. If possible, the Foundation also recommends eliminating electronics from your bedroom.
How to take a break and feel better
Anyone who has spent time on social media knows that it can come with a mixed bag of emotions. For every funny meme, there's a hurtful comment, and for every uplifting post, there's a photo of someone portraying a perfect life.
Combine that social media stress with non-stop video conferences and the constant feed of today's headlines and, before you know it, you're spiraling into a bad place.
“It’s pretty impossible to completely abandon phones, social media and screens,” Dr. Henderson says. “But setting aside technology-free time is something more people of all ages are having to actively pursue to improve their mental health and decrease stress.”
If you're starting to feel like this "always-on" connectivity is putting a strain on your mental health, here are some ways you can take control and feel better.
Filter who you follow (with a trend toward the positive ones)
With today's unsettling and stressful headlines, the last thing your brain needs is more negativity. Try to be more aware of the people and organizations you follow on social media. Find accounts that focus on posting positive content.
Also, consider whether the people you follow are sharing snippets from their real life, or just filtering the good content. It's hard to remember that for every pristine post-workout shot, there are hundreds of bad angles and bad hair days. If it makes you feel better, avoid following people who filter too much of their "normal" life and only share the glamour shots.
Limit your phone time
Aim to reduce the amount of total time you spend on your phone. Set a goal of only 30 minutes or an hour a day and see if you can work your way down from there. If this isn’t realistic because you use it for work, try shifting as much as you can to your laptop or desktop.
If you're having trouble regulating yourself, there are plenty of tools available today that can set time limits on apps or block certain apps altogether. Some of these tools may already exist on your phone. Check out these timers available for Android and iPhone devices.
Acknowledge when it's time to take a break
Try to recognize when your mental health may be suffering after spending too much time on your phone. Do you notice your self-esteem drops after using a particular social media channel? Are you finding that you feel sad or angry after spending time on your phone? If the answer is yes, it's time to take a break.
Identify times during the day when it is okay and not okay to use your phone. Setting these boundaries can help you make sure you're taking time to disconnect. For example:
- If you have a separate phone or email for work, set a time at the end of your day to shut them off. Not only will this help limit your screen time, it will also help you avoid burnout while working from home.
- Don't look at your phone during any meal. Take time to enjoy your food mindfully or have a conversation with someone.
- Stop using your phone at least 30 minutes before bedtime. If possible, leave it in another room while you sleep.
- Don't look at your phone first thing in the morning. Instead, find a few minutes for yourself and start your day fresh — drink a cup of tea, brew some coffee, do some stretches, exercise or meditate.
Use your phone for good
For all the negative talk about phones and technology, these devices come with plenty of positives, too. That same survey from Hopelab and Well Being Trust showed that teens and young adults often turn to the internet for help when they’re feeling depressed. The survey sampled more than 1300 U.S. teens and young adults.
According to the survey results:
- 90% of respondents turned to the internet for help with depression, including researching mental health issues.
- 75% of respondents looked for other individual’s mental health stories through podcasts, blogs or videos.
- 38% of respondents used wellbeing mobile apps.
- 32% of respondents connected with health providers through text and video chat.
Consider some of these ways your phone can help with your mental health:
Connect with supportive groups
In a recent Talk2BeWell podcast, Dr. Henderson sat down with a group of teens who shared their tips and advice for staying mentally healthy in this digital age. During the podcast, the teens emphasized that they've found a lot of positive aspects to social media and digital tools. In particular, these channels have helped the teens find online groups (such as LGBTQ communities) that provide support when they're struggling with mental health challenges.
"What we have seen is that the digital world is a space where young people can go for support," Dr. Henderson says. Adults can benefit from this too.
The next time you pop on your favorite social media channel, search for some groups that match your interests and passions. Look for pages or communities that fit in with your hobbies (such as music, sports or cooking) or find a group of professional peers.
Use apps that help with relaxation
If you're starting to feel stressed or anxious, pulling up Facebook or Instagram may not be the best solution. Instead, the teens on the Talk2BeWell podcast recommend using:
- Meditation apps like Headspace.
- Relaxing games, such as a virtual paint-by-number.
- YouTube videos about your favorite hobbies.
Providence in Oregon is looking to leverage technology for delivering mental healthcare through SilverCloud.
Remember that your phone doesn't have to be the enemy. If you're smart about how and when you spend time on your phone, you may find it can help you stay more connected and grounded.
Find a doctor
If you're still struggling with your mental health even after making these changes to your digital life, consider talking to a professional. They will be able to help you find healthy ways to cope with stress, anxiety and depression. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory or search for one in your area.
Could your phone be causing anxiety or depression? Learn about the possible side effects of too much screen time and how to find digital balance in your life. #mentalhealth
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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