When Is Digital Connectedness Too Much For Your Mental Health?

It's hard to imagine a world without the tech you use daily. In mere decades, smartphones and computers have become essential tools in our everyday lives.

After all, they keep you connected with family and friends no matter where you are.

You can also use them to access a wealth of information at the touch of a button — facilitating work, study, and research. 

They've also become a key source of entertainment, whether you're streaming your favorite TV show or playing the latest video game.

More recently, technology has made it possible to enjoy new experiences, such as virtual and augmented reality.

There's no doubt that smartphones and computers have made our lives easier and more enjoyable in different ways.

However, as dependence on devices grows in many areas of our lives, including work, play, and education, researchers scrutinize their impact on our well-being.

You might be familiar with increasing reports of "tech neck" cases — neck stiffness due to too much time spent looking down at screens — and prolonged sitting problems.

In addition to the physical health concerns raised by technology overuse, experts debate the exact impacts of technology on mental health and how to define being “too connected” to your digital devices.¹

As digital devices find their way into every facet of life, these investigations grow increasingly important.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about using technology to your advantage rather than a detriment.

Device ownership is on the rise worldwide

According to research by Common Sense Media, in 2011, only 31% of Americans owned a smartphone. In 2021, this figure almost tripled to 88%.²

They also found that American youth own smartphones at increasingly younger ages. 

In 2015, 32% of 11-year-olds and 77% of 18-year-olds owned smartphones. 

By 2019, these figures rose to 53% and 91%, respectively.³ ⁴

The Pew Research Center also found similar results in a survey examining rates of digital connectivity around the world.

Internet use has become virtually universal in the advanced economies surveyed. For example, in countries like the US, Australia, the Netherlands, and South Korea, more than 90% of people use the internet.⁵

There is also a steady rise in technology use in emerging economies — around half or more of the population in these nations use the internet. 

The exception is India, where approximately 47% of the population had internet access in 2021. However, this represents a massive increase from 4% in 2007.⁶

Five years ago, only 45% of the Mexican public and 34% of those in the Philippines used the internet at least occasionally. Today, internet use rates in these nations are 73% and 66%, respectively.

Device ownership has become accessible to the vast majority of people all over the world. So, let’s take a closer look at how much time goes into engaging with our devices.

How much screen time are kids and adults getting?

As technology becomes increasingly intertwined with more areas of our lives (work, play, and education), there is more and more time on our devices.

According to a 2019 survey, the average US adult spent an average of 3 hours and 43 minutes on their mobile phone daily.⁷

In contrast, back in 2014, the average was 2 hours and 32 minutes.

2019 was also the year when time on mobile phones surpassed time watching TV.⁷

However, smartphones aren't the only screen we're staring at. For Americans, overall screen time (which includes computers and TVs) is far higher — 10 hours and 39 minutes per day.⁸

That's more than the average amount of time (6.8 hours) Americans sleep each night.⁹ ¹⁰

So, what are we doing with all that time?

According to a 2022 global survey by We Are Social, device users still spend most of their time surfing the net (6 hours and 58 minutes). Video streaming (3 hours and 20 minutes) and social media (2 hours and 27 minutes) came in second and third place, respectively.¹¹

A Pew Research Center survey found that 31% of Americans reported they're online "almost constantly," while 48% said they're online several times a day. Only 6% said they're only online about once a day.¹²

Infrequent users are much rarer, with 8% going online a few times a week or less. And 7% of respondents said they do not use the internet.

The effects of screen time on mental health

Children and adolescents

Children and adolescents are at a more vulnerable stage of psychological development in terms of environmental factors that can impact their health and well-being.¹³

As a result, much research on the mental health effects of increased screen time has focused on children and youth populations.

So far, the effects of screen time on child mental health are not yet fully understood.

However, current evidence suggests that too much time spent staring at screens can lead to problems with concentration, sleep, and emotional regulation.

In one Canadian study about inattention, researchers compared a sample of 3,455 preschool children. Some of the children used screens for more than two hours, while others spent less than 30 minutes a day watching screens.¹⁴

The group with more than 2 hours a day of screen time was 7.7 times more likely to meet DSM-5 criteria for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and 5.9 times more likely to have significant inattention symptoms.¹⁴

A large 2018 study out of San Diego State University examined a wider age group (2 to 17-year-olds) with a sample of 40,337 US children.

They consistently found lower well-being scores in children with increased screen time.¹⁵

Also, after the initial first hour, additional daily screen time was associated with:

  • Being less curious

  • Lowered self-control

  • Feeling more distractible

  • Increased problems making friends

  • More emotional volatility

  • Trouble completing tasks

The study also found that teens who had more than seven hours a day of screen time were twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression than those who only had an average of one hour a day.

Overall, the adverse effects of screen time on well-being were more significant for adolescents than younger children.

Researcher Jean M. Twenge told Science Daily, "At first, I was surprised that the associations were larger for adolescents. However, teens spend more time on their phones and social media, and we know from other research that these activities are more strongly linked to low well-being than watching television and videos, which is most of younger children's screen time."¹⁶

A systematic review of 13 other studies found a connection between social media use and depression, anxiety, and overall psychological distress in adolescents.¹⁷

However, other experts stress that how social media influences mental health is complex. Some suggest that cyberbullying exposure, lowered self-esteem, and body image issues are particularly relevant.

An estimated 59% of US youths have experienced harassment (like bullying) online.¹⁷ ¹⁸ ¹⁹

The amount of time spent on social media also seems to make a difference.

A cohort study involving 6,595 US adolescents has found that participants who spent more than three hours a day on social media were more likely to experience mental health issues — especially internalizing symptoms like depression and anxiety.²⁰

Adults and digital connectedness

Similar adverse effects of device use are found in adults.

A 2017 study involving young adults aged 19–32 found that those who used social media more often were three times more likely to perceive themselves as socially isolated than those who used it less often.

Another study found that 73% of heavy social media users reported feeling lonely — this was the case for only 52% of light users.²¹ ²²

People who spent more than six hours a day watching TV or using their computers were more likely to develop depressive symptoms. Females, those less educated, and people under the poverty threshold were also at greater risk.²³

Another concerning trend is internet gaming disorder (IGD)

Though not yet formally included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Gaming Disorder is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).²⁴ ²⁵

Like substance use addictions, IGD shares similar characteristics, including the inability to control usage, tolerance, and withdrawal.²⁶

A recent 2021 survey also found that virtual reality (VR) gameplay can elicit a greater negative emotional response than laptop gameplay. When players experienced an adverse game scenario with the heightened realism of VR, there was an increase in rumination (distressed repetitive thinking).²⁷

Nomophobia

Similar to IGD, a specific term that describes a person's intense anxiety and discomfort when they're not with their phones is nomophobia — short for "no-mobile-phone phobia."

A 2021 meta-analysis of 20 studies found that 70.76% of participants had moderate to severe nomophobia, and 20.81% had severe nomophobia. The highest rate was among university students.²⁸

Individuals with nomophobia tended to:²⁹ ²⁸

  • Use several mobile phones and chargers

  • Frequently check screens for notifications

  • Have phones near them while they sleep

Can screen time have mental health benefits?

While there's been a lot of interest in the harmful effects of screen time in the research and media community, some experts highlight that technology is not all bad.

A 2021 meta-analysis of 30 studies looking at digital media's effects on adolescents' mental health during Covid-19 found some benefits despite the majority of studies reporting adverse effects.³⁰

For example, there were instances where devices helped to promote one-to-one communication and sharing of information in online friendships to relieve stress. 

Others also found positive online experiences can help reduce loneliness and stress.

Therefore, instead of focusing entirely on the duration of screen time (although some limits should exist), some experts suggest examining the quality of content, especially for developing children.³¹

How can you limit screen time?

If you feel that you're losing control over the time you spend online, here are some ways to limit your screen time effectively.³² ³³ ³⁴

  • Set limits Decide how many hours a day you or your children will spend on your devices and then stick to that limit. Phone usage tracker apps are readily available, sometimes pre-installed on your device.

  • Consider what constitutes quality content Quantity of screen time is still a consideration, but it’s also helpful to focus on consuming quality content. If you’re a parent, this might mean getting your child thinking and talking by asking questions about what they enjoyed or noticed about their show or game. Not only will they be more engaged, but you’ll also have a better sense of their viewing habits.

  • Bring mindfulness to device usage For example, instead of scrolling through Facebook while we're watching TV, put the phone away and focus on the show. The same could apply in social settings like mealtime. This way, you can also give your full attention to the people you're with.

  • Plan and stay committed to taking breaks from social media Have you ever heard of doing a social media cleanse? It’s not that complicated. It just means stopping and taking a holiday from using social media for a defined period.

  • Eliminate what doesn’t serve you Unfollow accounts or people on social media that make you feel bad, depressed, stressed, or anxious.

  • Quiet the noise Turn off as many automatic notifications as possible and unsubscribe to newsletters you don't read.

  • Disconnect before bed Keep bedrooms free of screens, and try not to look at any devices one hour before bedtime.

The lowdown

Technology should make life easier, not feed anxiety and depression. Small changes in the quantity and quality of online content you consume can make a big difference in achieving your best mental health and moderating any harmful effects of overusing devices. If you feel like your mood, relationships, work, school, or other vital areas of your life are negatively impacted by being overly connected to technology, consider speaking to your doctor for support and recommendations.

Sources:
  1. Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study (2018)

  2. the infinite dial 2021 | Edison Research

  3. US smartphone penetration continues to climb, while tablet penetration is stagnant | Insider Intelligence

  4. 2019 The common sense census: Media use by tweens and teens (2019)

  5. 1. Digital connectivity growing rapidly in emerging economies (2019)

  6. Internet penetration rate in India from 2007 to 2021 | Statista

  7. Average US time spent with mobile in 2019 has increased: US adults spend more time on mobile than they do watching TV | Insider Intelligence

  8. Time flies: U.S. adults now spend nearly half a day interacting with media | Nielsen

  9. Americans devout more than 10 hours a day to screen time, and growing (2018)

  10. In U.S., 40% get less than recommended amount of sleep | Gallup

  11. Digital 2022: Another year of bumper growth | We Are Social

  12. About three-in-ten U.S. adults say they are ‘almost constantly’ online (2021)

  13. Improving the mental and brain health of children and adolescents | World Health Organization

  14. Screen-time is associated with inattention problems in preschoolers: Results from the CHILD birth cohort study (2019)

  15. Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study (2018 - Science Direct)

  16. Reduced screen time for young highly recommended for well-being (2018)

  17. A systematic review: the influence of social media on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adolescents (2019)

  18. Social media use and adolescent mental health: Findings from the UK millennium cohort study (2018)

  19. A majority of teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying (2018)

  20. Associations between time spent using social media and internalizing and externalizing problems among US youth (2019)

  21. Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the U.S. (2017)

  22. Loneliness and the workplace 2020 U.S. report (2020)

  23. Association between screen time and depression among US adults (2017)

  24. Internet gaming | American Psychiatric Association

  25. Addictive behaviours: Gaming disorder | World Health Organization

  26. Internet addiction: A brief summary of research and practice (2012)

  27. Virtual experience, real consequences: the potential negative emotional consequences of virtual reality gameplay (2020)

  28. The prevalence of nomophobia by population and by research tool: A systematic review, meta-analysis, and meta-regression (2021)

  29. Nomophobia: A rising trend in students | Psychology Today

  30. Digital media use and adolescents' mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic: A systematic review and meta-analysis (2021)

  31. ‘Screen time’ for kids is an outdated concept, so let’s ditch it and focus on quality instead | The Conversation

  32. Screen time | Health Information for Western Australians

  33. Managing screen time | Digital Citizenship

  34. Why you should be reducing screen time and 3 simple ways to do it (2020)

Dawn Teh is a health writer and former psychologist who enjoys exploring topics about the mind, body, and understanding what helps humans thrive.

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