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How screen time impacts mental health: Dr. Nina Radcliff

How screen time impacts mental health: Dr. Nina Radcliff

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American children and adults are spending more time staring at a screen.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that prior to the pandemic and remote learning, children ages 8-10 spent an average of 6 hours/day in front of a screen; ages 11-14 spent 9 hours/day; and ages 15-18 spent 7.5 hours/day. For adults, it was a whopping 11 hours/day, which is estimated to have increased during lockdowns to 19 hours/day!

While screens offer a lot of useful purposes, studies show that always being connected often means “never unplugged.” This can jeopardize a person’s mental, emotional and physical well-being. And for our younger generations, this can have serious, long-term impact.

Screen time and younger generations

Helping our children gain understanding on how to find balance between the benefits of integrating technology in life and the unhealthy drawbacks of overuse, obsessive and toxic misuse, is key.

Technology fulfills a natural human need for stimulation, interaction and changes in environment. Fundamentally, the dual-sided — positive and negative — response to technology, comes from our biology; specifically, from high dopamine levels. We get a spike in dopamine when we receive positive images or messages from our digital devices. And, we can become addicted to doing so. For our young, it can be fun interactive games, bells ringing, flying stars, adding more hearts or a new email or text. And screen time adds up quickly with televisions, computers, gaming, smartphones, streaming, browsing the internet and social media.

Health concerns

Digital technology provides a variety of access points that can promote dependence on technology and negative consequences. How? Self-administering doses of dopamine with the click of a mouse! In an article, former Facebook president Sean Parker admitted, “it’s exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Saying that social media creates “a social-validation feedback loop” by giving people “a little dopamine hit every once in a while.

It can open exposure to violence and risk-taking behaviors (e.g., substance abuse); sexual content; negative stereotypes; cyberbullying and predators; and misleading or inaccurate information.

It can result in sleep disturbances, poor performance in school, digital eye strain, loss of social skills, mood problems (loneliness, anxiousness, depression), poor self-image and body image issues, fear of missing out (FOMO), unhealthy boundary setting and weight issues. Less time spent with family, friends, or engaging in physical activity or other forms of relaxation or fun.

Developing compulsive, impulsive and addictive behaviors as digital offerings can be just as hard to stay away from at any given point in a day as it is easy and rewarding to use.

Managing screen-time

Teaching safe technology interfacing takes active, hands-on involvement. It’s not just age-appropriateness but also the child’s maturity level. Some ways:

Be involved. Media is just another environment in which kids play. The same parenting rules apply. Set limits, know the content, and get to know where your kids are involved and with who they are involved with online as you would in person.

Manage digital screen time in a balanced manner with real-world experiences and interactions. Provide healthy off-line activity joys. Encourage fun activities with music, art, sports, puzzles, creating, board games and other hobbies that don’t involve a screen.

When old enough, discuss your concerns of too much screen time.

Discuss what your child is seeing and things that are concerning them (bullying, gossiping, violence, exclusion) as well as online safety (predators), privacy issues and advertising. Encourage them to think critically about what they are seeing (e.g., is it accurate, trustworthy, and scams).

Model healthy digital behaviors skills. Unplug at family meals, outings and areas reserved for conversations and eating. Be aware of times engaging with your phone.

Consider no devices in your child’s bedroom (phones, video games, computers or televisions). With use only in a public space in the home (kitchen or family room).

Nurture pro-social identity development in the real world. Youth can create an Internet facade, but it’s far more important to cultivate purpose and identity within families, school and their communities.

Remove background TV from areas of home. Manage that screens must go off 30-60 minutes before bedtime (so lights don’t interfere with melatonin/sleep hormone) production. Encourage reading, meditation, music, or other soothing behaviors.

Keep an eye on what your child is watching to make sure it’s age-appropriate

Know your child’s passwords and social media accounts and check on them to ensure that what they are posting or commenting on is appropriate. You would rather know than be surprised.

Educate yourself on apps, games and social media platforms, including parental control technology. This can help filter/block inappropriate content. CommonSenseMedia.Org is helpful source advocating for kids’ well-being in the digital age.

Digital technology is a part of our daily life. Parents, families and influencers will make all the difference in helping our children understand the positive benefits and drawbacks of technology.

Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line.

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