The irony is not lost on me that I am choosing to spend more time looking at a screen in order to write this article, on how spending too much time looking at computers, phones or tv screens has a detrimental effect on mental health. There is no doubt that technology has many benefits, including on mental health. However, as life becomes more digital, we start to sacrifice some of the other aspects of life that are keeping our mental health in check.
Living through several lockdowns has highlighted that technology can help to tackle the issue of loneliness, especially for those who have had to isolate or shield for most of the year. It can be a vital lifeline to family and friends. On the other hand, in the pre-pandemic era, and what we all hope will be a relatively normal post pandemic era, high levels of screen time can cause a lack of socialising and face-to-face interactive skills. Those who choose to always text or email rather than take a phone call or meet a friend for a walk or coffee will likely find themselves starting to suffer from anxiety and depression. Technology can be a great tool for communication but must not be the sole source of human interaction. A walk around the park with a friend will not only help your socialisation skills but also help tackle one of the most widely studied negative side effects of high screen time usage: weight gain.
Sitting at your office desk on a computer all day, spending hours playing a video game or watching TV are all realities of the more sedentary life humanity now finds itself living. This increases the risk of obesity, which in turn starts to affect confidence levels and induce other mental health problems. Since 1995 the percentage of obese adults in the UK has more than tripled, and over that same time period the percentage of households in the UK who have computers has gone from 27% to 88%. Although the increase in the number of households with computers is not a necessary link to the rise in obesity rates it does show a shift in lifestyles, where individuals felt the need to have computers in their homes and not just at work. This transition has led to a trade-off of our time priorities, and often screen time wins out over green time.
eMarketer conducted a study that found that the average time spent on the phone in the US a day in 2021 was 3hrs 54 minutes and 3hrs 22 mins a day spent watching TV. As these time allocations increase we choose to spend less and less time on other activities. Often the activity we allow our time on our screens to take away from us is time in nature, a concept Isabel Hardman explores in her recent book ‘the Natural Health Service’. This lifestyle change from nature to computer is severe enough that the Oxford Dictionary for Children find themselves replacing words associated with nature to those associated with computers and technology. Exercise and fresh air have a long list of benefits for both our mental health and mental capacity, making this exchange a problematic one.
The mental health effects of screen time don’t solely lie with the act of looking at a screen but also what it is we are engaging with online. The programming of social media is deliberately engineered as reward systems, similar to the ones associated with gambling. This can create obsessive behaviour, and in young people prevents their brain from fully developing a self-control system. It also creates an ‘announcement culture’ where individuals feel the need to declare everything they do and achieve for likes and follows. This has a dangerous side effect of individuals being brainwashed with the heavily redacted and manicured lives of others on social media, and being left feeling inadequate and losing confidence: every day is a comparison between your life and those who have seemingly ‘perfect lives’. Social media does have its place in culture, but it is important to create a balance in the types of accounts you follow and the amount of time spent on it so that you are able to appreciate what is real and realistic in life.
Our mental health is often linked with our mental performance, if we are unable to perform well at work it creates stress and could lead to other mental health problems. A key component of this is a good memory. Harvard Medical School have found that too much screen time can affect sleep patterns, which in turn prevents the process of information transitioning to your memory. It is important to stay away from blue-lit screens before bed and to have phone free times that allow for you to engage with deep work and to be free of distractions. The alerts on your phone often pull your attention away, creating shorter attention spans and increasing the amount of time needed to complete your work. Phones will always be needed at work but try to turn off notifications from certain apps, put your phone in your desk draw for a period of time, and if none of those work there are apps that will help you stay off your phone.
I am not advocating that technology as a whole is not good for mental health. As a founding member of Digital Tories I see the possibilities for the digital world to improve quality of life around the world, to increase standards of education, to allow for a better work-life balance, help combat climate change, and even improve mental health. But like most things in life a balance is needed. Screen time cannot be a replacement for green time.
Christine Wallace is Head of Communications and External Relations at Digital Tories. You can follow Christine on Twitter at @Chrissie_W13