Some thoughts about "Screen Time" and Mental Health

Jim Dunn, MA, NCC, LMHC on Jun 23, 2019 in Relationship and Family

There are so many different issues and areas of life that we have control over and impact our mental health; however, arguably none has been increasing in quantity as steadily over the past 30 years than “Screen Time.” I put this phrase in quotes because it deserves the special attention, is often misrepresented, and as a term, it turns out, isn’t truthfully very helpful. However, it is a term in common usage, both professionally in the health care arena, and colloquially in pop psychology and conversation. Regardless, and without question, there has been a drastic increase in the amount of screen time we all partake in on a daily basis, but there is a surprising lack of clarity regarding the research of its effects on our mental health…or maybe it’s not so surprising when you think about it.

The research data being generated suggests that screen time in adolescents correlates to problems in mood control, emotional understanding, impulse control, and numerous other problems. There are studies done with brain imaging that support this conclusion as well. The answer typically suggested to us is to moderate screen time more, create limits for children regarding screen time, create limits for ourselves regarding screen time. That people are “addicted” to the Internet, or to their cell phones, or to their video games or TV and need to stop. Kids need to play outside more like the old days. Seems logical, right?

There’s a problem, though. In truth, there are multiple problems with the conclusion that the answer to screen time’s negative effects is less screen time. First, a large amount of the studies being done on this subject don’t discriminate between the type of screen time and the associated problems. They don’t account for differences in screen time that are video games versus Instagram, or Facebook versus Tinder, or Sesame Street versus Jersey Shore. The data on the effect of the types of media on mental health, both developmental and incidental, just isn’t there yet.

Second, to conclude that we need to be telling adolescents/young adults/etc. that they need “less screen time” is antithetical to nearly all of the trends in our current country and global business marketplace. Staying competitive in the marketplace these days nearly requires digital sophistication and savoir faire, and directing the up-and-coming generation to spend less time honing these skills is confusing to them, especially when they know more than the older generations do about the power available to them through screen time. Imagine telling a future author they’re spending too much time reading, or a future farmer they’re getting too dirty playing in the garden. The future for most Americans is going to involve immense time engaged in the digital world, and having the skills to operate that world are already essential skills for the modern American.

So the obvious question now is: what are we supposed to do? The obvious answer is: we don’t give up. Screen time is associated with, not causing these deficits in coping and social skills. (This doesn’t excuse internet/porn/video game/etc addictions, there is always a point at which we are overly dependent upon a mental drug and would benefit from moderating it.) The downfall for coping and social skill sets has been that their normal methods of acquisition have not yet evolved along with the technology that has also placed demands on all of us. Now of course we would all benefit from more sunlight and exercise, but we need to stop trying to demonize the technology and instead look at the opportunities for change that we missed, or could miss in the future… because like it or not, the technology isn’t going away.

So here’s my proposition: Whether you are a kid, or an adult, or a parent, or a guardian, look at your (or your child’s) screen time as an opportunity when you can. Look for ways it can help you learn about life, about emotions, about coping. Be evaluative of your entertainment. The true enemy here is escapism, imagining that screen time is leaving our lives behind, not supplementing our lives as they are. When you can, ask more from yourself and others online. If you’re a parent, talk with your children about the social lessons they learn online instead of getting on them for being online in the first place. If you’re an adult or a young one, hold in your mind that your “digital self” is just your real self being projected on a bigger screen and that you are accountable for that person. The problem has been that we haven’t been taught/haven’t been teaching how to exist with a digital world, which is why it sometimes seems to have devolved into The Lord of the Flies.

If all of that seems too complicated, start with this. After 1 hour of screen time, ask yourself (or your child): “What did I learn?” Did you learn that 1+1 = 2 because of counting on Sesame Street? Did you learn that playing Solitaire on your phone calms you down a little? Did you learn that even though they’re entertaining, maybe the people on Jersey Shore aren’t the people you’d trust with your secrets? Did you learn that you felt a sense of pride finishing higher on the leaderboard on Call of Duty today than you did yesterday? I might occasionally find things in my “Screen Time” distasteful, but as long as I can connect that reaction to who I am in real life, I am learning from it.

Jim Dunn is a Counselor in Seattle, WA.
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