Study: More recreational screen-time linked to worse mental health in teens

The increasing amount of ‘screen-time’ spent on mobiles, tablets and computers among young people is associated with poor self-image, according to a study recently published in Mental Health and Physical Activity.

Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are reported to affect one in five young people. Despite the prevalence of mental health problems in this age group the underlying causes are not fully understood. One emerging explanation is that excessive screen-time influences the mental health of young people. Some screen-time for recreational purposes is thought to support the well-being of young people. However, many youths consistently exceed the recommended ‘healthy’ daily screen-time of up to two hours. Until now, little research has been conducted in this area.

In order to investigate the effect of excessive screen-time on the mental well-being of young people, a team of scientists from the University of Newcastle, Australia recruited 322 students with an average age of 14. All participants reported their screen-time and mental health at two points over the academic year.

The results showed that recreational screen time was negatively associated with changes to physical self-concept. This means that young people who spent a lot of time on their mobile phones/tablets for recreational purposes suffered from more negative self-judgements about their appearance, strength and body fat. However, there was no link between non-recreational screen-time (e.g. for homework or revision) and mental health problems.

One explanation for these results is that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat encourage sharing of photos, videos and messages which causes young people to compare themselves to their peers. As a result, the difference between the ‘ideal self’ which is posted online and an individual’s own self-perception can lead to poor mental well-being. Further explanations for the results include cyberbullying and missing out on other opportunities to promote mental health such as sleep and physical activity. Although there is not enough evidence yet to indefinitely support any of these explanations.

The results of this study highlight the need for further research that investigates how specific devices influence mental health as well as the need for a more in-depth understanding of exactly why excessive screen-time can lead to mental health issues.