Mental wellness and digital devices: The impact of screen time on mental health
Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the globe are more attached to their digital devices than they've ever been. Studies show that 93.6% of Americans significantly increased their screen time after lockdowns began. There's good reason for that attachment, too: when the world shut down, and people were not able to physically attend school, work, or activities, the Internet presented a way for life to keep functioning, despite lockdowns and people's inability to travel from home.
Obviously, in some ways, the power the Internet has given us is immense and beneficial. We can conduct our most important activities from anywhere. We can feel close to family members no matter whether they live on the same continent as us or not. We can shop even if stores can't be open. However, the effects of our dependence on the Internet haven't only been positive. Research has shown that our reliance on screens has also negatively affected our mental health.
Thanks to an inordinate amount of time spent on screens in the past year, people's mental wellness is lagging, and it's important to understand what those impacts are and why they happened if you want to protect the well-being of your loved ones. Read on to understand the connection between mental wellness and digital devices and the proper way to moderate your screen time (and that of your family) to ensure that screens only improve the quality of your life and do not detract from it.
How people use their devices
Before the invention of smartphones and wearable smart devices, computer usage was mostly limited to PC and laptop usage. However, now that smart devices have proliferated the market and people of all ages can access the web in countless ways, it's more convenient than ever to spend time on a virtual device. And, many people don't just spend time looking at one screen per day—they look at many.
Think with Google showed that 80% of users look at a smartphone daily, and 57% of people use more than one device with a screen each day. Only 14% get online with a computer (laptop or PC only)—meaning that computer usage isn't just limited to an office, classroom, or desk, but can happen anywhere a person is—increasing the chances of spending a significant portion of their life online.
Screen usage can be both good and bad. When people get online, they can be doing work or classwork. They can be corresponding with friends who live far away or watching/listening to a new and exciting film or album release. However, screen time can also negatively impact a person's mental health for a myriad of reasons. Learn both how using digital devices can benefit people's well-being and how it can also detract from people's mental wellness.
How digital devices benefit mental wellness
The following are common ways that using a digital device or connecting to the web can actually boost your mental wellness.
Increased feelings of self-efficacy
Many computer users report feeling accomplished when they learn a new computer or tech task. By using a device to help them accomplish something or learning how to use new software or hardware they've never used before, individuals may have increased mental well-being because they feel more competent and better able to handle things independently.
When people use their devices to play video games, they may experience a greater sense of community. This is especially true for people who play communal games. Multi-player games that allow people to connect with others outside of their home can often lead to both social and emotional benefits from these games.
Decreased depression by distraction
Studies showed that kids and teens who experienced depression saw fewer depressive symptoms when they spent a limited amount of time watching engaging material like TV shows or movies on their screens. Entertainment like TV shows and movies can be engaging and distracting and require the use of the imagination. Thus, using screens for entertainment can alleviate negative thinking patterns and help children escape distressing feelings. Time spent watching entertainment on screens should be limited, however, to not interfere with activities and the routines of daily life.
Less psychosocial stress for adults
Adults who learned to use social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram experienced less psychosocial stress than their counterparts who did not use social media. Since social media allows for connection with people far away and can be a way to connect when the rest of life is hectic, it can be a helpful tool for decreasing the negative feelings that arise from a lack of relationships in adulthood.
Decrease stress by making busy work easier
One way that screens have improved people's lives is by making life's busy work easier. Rather than have to go to the grocery store, people can use the Internet to have groceries delivered. They can set up recurring orders for house supplies, so they don't have to remember to go to the market. And devices can do things like fill out our calendars and send reminders, so we don't forget important events—making life easier and more convenient. Stress can wreak havoc on people's mental well-being. When devices with screens can decrease stress, they can boost mental health and make life easier and more enjoyable for everyone who benefits from their handy features.
How digital devices negatively impact mental wellness
There are clearly mental health benefits to spending time on screens. However, too much screen time has repeatedly been shown to impact mental health negatively. Here are some ways in which the usage of digital devices can detract from mental wellness.
Cause depression from overusing devices
A study in 2017 showed that excessive use of digital devices increased depression in users. Teens and adults who spent time looking at screens for more than six hours a day were much more likely to experience moderate to severe depression than those who spent less time with their screens. Experts believe that one factor increasing the depression for people relying on screens is disconnectedness.
Spending so much time alone with a screen can increase feelings of isolation and interrupt genuine connections in the real world. Lack of real human connections adds to people's feeling of depression, and their attempts to soothe depression with screen time can create a vicious cycle that only makes the depression worse.
Too much screen time has been shown to impact sleep negatively. Time spent staring at a screen's blue light—particularly in the nighttime—can interfere with circadian rhythms and ultimately decrease sleep quality and duration. Not getting enough sleep can severely impact any person's mental health, including an increase in feelings of anxiety and depression.
Create feelings of low self-esteem based on social comparison
People who spend a lot of time on social media may have lower self-esteem because they spend more time comparing themselves to connected peers on the platforms. Social media users don't only compare themselves to friends and family they actually know and are connected with. They also compare themselves to celebrities and influencers who are on the platform—and it can be detrimental to a person's mental health to compare their own life to the life of someone whose existence appears picture-perfect. Further effects of low self-esteem can include negative self-talk and body image issues, both of which can further negatively impact mental wellness as a person experiences them.
Decrease opportunities for physical movement and exercise
The more time people sit and use their screens, the less time they spend moving around and exercising. Exercise can improve mental health significantly. Positive effects of mental health include decreased anxiety, improved depression, better sleep, increased self-esteem, and more. When screen usage interferes with exercise, it can have long-term physical and mental health risks.
Expose kids and teens (and adults) to the risks of cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is a rampant problem online. In fact, studies show that more than 50% of all 10- to 18-year-olds have experienced some sort of cyberbullying in their lifetime. The more time that young people spend connecting with peers and strangers online, the higher the risk of cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying can have a serious negative impact on mental health, including feelings of anxiety and depression and even thoughts of suicide. Limiting the amount of time spent online and the kind of activities your kids can do online can help minimize the chances that they experience cyberbullying while online.
Tips to minimize screen time's negative impact on mental health
Drastically limiting people's usage of screens today would likely be impossible—and it would stop them from deriving all the benefits that can come from utilizing digital devices. However, the best way to ensure that screen time doesn't impact mental health is by using devices correctly and being mindful about the time you spend looking at screens. Here are some tips for minimizing any negative impact of screen time on mental health and wellness.
Balance screen time with extracurriculars
Allow your kids a limited amount of screen time for schoolwork, entertainment, or even connecting with friends. But balance the screen time by signing them up for extracurricular activities during which they won't use their phones. Studies show that teens who do more extracurriculars (and have less screen time) have the best mental health outcomes, and you can help them create more human connections and foster connections by helping them find extracurriculars they love.
Make bedrooms screen-free
Everyone in the family should follow one rule: bedrooms are screen-free. This can have multiple benefits for mental wellness: It can help improve sleep because people aren't taking in blue light when they should be trying to sleep. And it can help ensure your children are using screens safely and not experiencing cyberbullying without your being aware of what's going on. Consider allowing screen usage only in central, common areas of the house.
Supervise kids' screen time
Kids should not be allowed to use their digital devices alone. Keep computers and devices where you can see them, and make a rule for kids that they can only use their devices when they are in the room with an adult. Being in the room with your kid when they're on a device —and being within "eyeshot can ensure they are not looking at anything inappropriate or distressing. You can also see who they are chatting with, so you can ensure they don't get themselves into any kind of distressing or situation without realizing that's what they're doing. Supervising screen time keeps everyone safe and reduces feelings of stress.
Set aside times to unplug
Schedule time for you and all family members to unplug. Maybe all screens have to be away during dinner, or maybe you have phone-free weekends. Whatever limits you set up, you can make sure that you have some dedicated time when you know you'll be connecting with loved ones and when everyone's eyes and brains will get a break from staring at their digital screens.
Schedule time to move
Make sure you're balancing screen time with time you spend out in the world moving around. You can exercise by going on a walk or run or do something that simply gets you moving—like walking through a mall. Even as an adult, scheduling activities can ensure you're getting enough movement to benefit your mental health, and it can naturally bring you away from your screen to ensure you get a break from spending time only in the virtual world.
There is no doubt about it, our digital devices and the Internet have connected and empowered the world in more ways than we ever dreamed possible. Even during a deadly global pandemic, the Internet and computers allowed us to thrive and function, despite it not being safe to leave our homes or attend regular activities. And yet, with all the benefits that accompany the development of technology, our reliance on screens and the ways in which they connect people have also had drawbacks.
Luckily, however, if you have some understanding of how your screen usage may negatively impact your mental health or wellness and are mindful of ways to use screens healthfully (and also the ways that are less healthy so you can avoid them), you can make sure you and your loved ones use digital devices in the safest ways possible. That way, your devices can simply be tools for greater productivity, connection, and entertainment in your family, and not machines that present any kind of risk to anyone who uses them—whether those risks are mental or physical. Let your devices enrich your life and wellness, not detract from it.
Kaspersky is dedicated to keeping all people safe online—by both protecting their information and ensuring that your devices are tools that are used to help you—and not cause you unnecessary stress or harm. Because of their commitment to safety, the company offers a slew of products to protect you and your family while you spend time online. One of the best offerings for families with children who use the web is Kaspersky Safe Kids. Kaspersky Safe Kids is a tool that allows you to protect your kids both online and offline by giving you a huge set of parental controls, including the ability to set screen time limits, so you can ensure your little one is not spending too much time with their digital device. Browse Kaspersky products today, and discover how each can enhance your experience when using digital devices and help mitigate negative experiences you could have online. We want to help make sure your technology always works for—and not against—you.