How Do Electronics Affect Mental Health in Kids and Teens?

With the ever-expanding variety of electronic devices available in recent years, screen time has become a complicated topic. Television remains the main type of screen-based activity among kids and teenagers. However, computers, video games, tablets and smartphones are being used at an increasingly young age as well.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, up to 75% of young children have their own tablets, and infants are estimated to start handling mobile devices during the first year of life.

Screen time and specifically watching television have been negatively associated with the development of physical and cognitive abilities, and positively associated with obesity, behavioral issues, sleep problems and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.

As the presence of technology in the lives of children and adolescents has increased, so has the interest in and importance of how these screen-based technologies impact their health and wellbeing.

Sleep Impact

Screen time can greatly affect sleep, and therefore affect many other areas or your child’s life. There is evidence to suggest that the use of screens at bedtime is linked to fewer hours of sleep, poorer sleep quality and increased tiredness.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the use of electronic devices, especially at night, can significantly affect your sleep cycle. The blue-colored light from screens can disrupt your body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Using devices late at night can also trick your brain into trying to stay awake longer.

electronics and mental health

The connection between mental health and sleep is not fully known, but several studies have found correlations between sleep disorders and mental illnesses. Lack of sleep may increase stress, impair the brain’s ability to regulate emotions and negatively affect thinking.

Sleep is important to both the physical and mental wellbeing of children of all ages. Practicing good “sleep hygiene” by turning off or spending less time on electronic devices at least 15-30 minutes prior to going to bed may help prevent any negative effects technology and screen use may have on sleep.

Social Media

Most people share only their best pictures and happiest memories on social media. This can cause others to compare themselves unfairly to those they follow or see on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and the list goes on.

Having to compete with generally unrealistic standards can be tough enough for adults. However, it can be especially damaging to kids and teenagers who are already experiencing hormonal changes and peer judgement while navigating some of the most difficult, and transformative, periods of their lives.

Continuously viewing people who have large social media followings and appear to live picture-perfect lives can contribute to low self-esteem, negative self-talk and body image issues. If you notice that your child or teen regularly feels poorly about themselves during or after they scroll through social media, it may be time to change their routine.

electronics and mental health

Limiting the amount of time your kids spend online can be the first step in cutting down on the negativity that can be created by scrolling through social media. You can also help them go through their various social media channels to unfollow or clear out any profiles, content, etc. that is unrealistic or makes them feel poorly.

Physical Health Impact

Some of the most common concerns around screen use among children and teens relate to inactivity. Generally, it is thought that any screen time during the day is time that is not being spent exercising or doing other forms of physical activity. Sedentary behavior can be associated with poorer physical health, well-being and mental health.

However, it is also important to acknowledge that an increase in virtual resources for body movement has also led to greater accessibility for people who may not be able to be active otherwise. You can take virtual group classes with the local gym, participate in online yoga tutorials and even play movement-promoting video games like Just Dance and Wii Fit.

So, while electronics can undoubtedly have a negative impact on physical health in some cases, they can also have a positive impact in instances where they provide people with more opportunities to be active, especially kids who may be more likely to participate when tech or video games are involved.

Positives of Electronics

Using screens for communicating and connecting with friends and loved ones may be beneficial for some children and young people. While social media has risks in the form of enabling unhealthy comparisons to others, bullying or exposure to negative content, it can also have positive influences.

Teens are able to keep in touch with others, strengthen relationships with friends and explore new information and perspectives. Photo and video sharing sites like Instagram and TikTok can be great creative outlets, and can give young people a sense of community.

Screens can also be used to actively promote mental health in the form of online treatment. Telehealth has become a great option for many young adults and families alike.

Interpreting the Research

Ultimately, there is still more to learn about how the use of screens and technology impacts the mental health and wellbeing of young people. As our technology develops, so will our understanding of the many ways it can affect our lives.

When it comes to screen time, you can keep yourself or your child in check by asking:

  • Are you using it to connect with family?
  • Are you using it to access a mental health resource?
  • Or, are you using it to compare your life with influencers on social media, resulting in poor self-esteem?

Technology is powerful in that it provides access to just about anything we can imagine. If we are mindful about our usage of technology and screen time, we can use it to support our mental health rather than harm it.

How to Reduce Screen Time

If you feel that you or your teen are spending too much time online, here are some ways to reduce screen time:

  • Limit screen time to an hour a day
  • Keep TVs and phones out of bedrooms and study areas
  • Install apps and extensions that limit access to certain websites
  • Encourage mindfulness exercises
  • Parents and children can discuss their hopes and goals, and whether device use helps them achieve these things
  • Encourage face-to-face, in-person interactions

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