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The Complexity of Screen Time: Effects on Anxiety and Depression

By Didi Dunin and Will Foley, CEI Interns

Are teens spending too much time with their technologies? According to a Pew Research Center report, 95% of teens can easily access a smartphone; 45% are online “almost constantly” (Anderson, 2018). Americans spend as much as 12 hours in front of TV, phone, and computer screens each day (Fischer, 2019). Increased screen time, specifically time spent on social media, is correlated with rising rates of anxiety and depression, especially in girls (Riehm et. al, 2019). However, research suggests that this correlation might be mediated by other factors.

A Changed World

Modern technology has thoroughly changed how we interact with one another and even the world around us. Some of us may remember the days when children actively spent time outside playing, climbing, jumping, and running around exploring the world. However, the percentage of time young people are outside has dropped dramatically in the past three decades. This means fewer people are getting the benefits of the great outdoors—including better academic performance, more friends, and less depression and hyperactivity (O’mara, 2018).

The constant notifications coming from our screens are encouraging students to believe they can multitask, which research now shows is nearly impossible (Taylor, 2011). Immoderate screen use also affects their ability to think deeply on a topic (Ehmke, n.d.) and form meaningful and deep relationships with their peers. Instead of being in the present moment with friends and family or focusing on one task, many young people are becoming addicted to a constant stream of bite sized information, with interactions being quickly consumed and discarded.

Side Effects of Screen Time

For youth, greater internalizing symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, might not be caused by exposure to screens, but instead be a result of the many side effects that accompany increased screen time. Some of these side effects include:

  1. Increase in cyberbullying, poor sleep quality, reduced physical activity (Viner et. al, 2019)

  2. Increase in upward social comparison (Vogel, Rose, Roberts, & Eckles, 2014)

  3. Perceived social isolation (Primack et. al, 2017)

What’s Behind the Anxiety and Depression?

Research led by the Imperial College London and University College London (Viner et. al., 2019) looked at the causes of increased anxiety and unhappiness in girls who spent more time on social media compared to those who were less plugged in. They found that anxiety and unhappiness could be almost entirely explained by the increased exposure to cyberbullying, loss of sleep, and reduced physical activity (Wilson, 2019).

Another highly influential report called #StatusOfMind, which was published in 2017 by the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) and the Young Health Movement (YHM), discussed how social media platforms create unrealistic standards of beauty and lifestyles (e.g., though digital filters and false portrayals). For high social media users, constant exposure to upward social comparison may lead to poor body image, low self-esteem, and fear of missing out (FOMO). All of these can manifest as anxiety and depressive disorders.

Causality is complex. Before assuming that eliminating or cutting back on screen time is the primary solution, educators can ask themselves what their school is doing to address some of the side effects of excessive screen use.

  1. Are you creating a climate where cyberbullying and social isolation are actively addressed?

  2. Are teens educated about the importance of sleep and physical activity?

Media and Social Media Literacy

Schools can help teens better understand what they are consuming by teaching media and social media literacy. Start conversations about the “perfect” reality on the screen versus the complexities of real life. Discuss how graphic editing tools, such as Photoshop, have created unrealistic beauty standards. Part of the responsibility for change also lies with the influencers, magazines, and other companies selling their stylized brands.

  1. Teach your students about the power of social media to influence companies by waging a hashtag campaign highlighting this problem.

  2. Develop a hashtag (i.e., #realbeauty, #nophotoshop, etc.) to comment on edited photos to bring this epidemic to students’ and businesses’ attention.

The World Health Organization recommends no screen time for kids under two. We can follow these guidelines once screens are introduced (Cara, 2019):

  1. Ensure that screens are kept in common areas and not allowed in children’s beds and playrooms.

  2. Apps such as Zift and Screen Time can be used to control how much time a young person spends on their technology.

  3. Encourage family and friend play time, especially outdoors.

  4. Change screen time rules for different ages. For example, an older child may have an hour while a younger may only have 30 minutes.

Since technology is now a ubiquitous part of our society, positive interaction with screen time should be encouraged. For example, searching for positive content (i.e., entertainment, humor, content creation, learning) and keeping in touch with faraway relatives (Radovic, Gmelin, Stein & Miller, 2017). Perhaps the most important thing we can do is be the model that we want for our children and students. Until we cut back on our own screen time, those younger than us never will.


Anderson, J. (2018, August 23). Even teens are worried they spend too much time on their phones. Quartz.

Cara, E. (2019, April 25). No screen time for kids under 2, WHO says. Gizmodo.

Ehmke, R. How phones ruin concentration. Child Mind Institute.

Radovic, A., Gmelin, T., Stein, B. D., & Miller, E. (2017). Depressed adolescents positive and negative use of social media. Journal of Adolescence, 55, 5–15.

Riehm, K. E., Feder, K. A., Tormohlen, K. N., Crum, R. M., Young, A. S., Green, K. M., … Mojtabai, R. (2019). Associations between time spent using social media and internalizing and externalizing problems among us youth. JAMA Psychiatry, 1.

Royal Society for Public Health, Young Health Movement (2017). #StatusofMind: Social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Taylor, J. (2011). Technology: Myth of multitasking. Psychology Today.

Viner, R. M., Aswathikutty-Gireesh, A., Stiglic, N., Hudson, L. D., Goddings, A.-L., Ward, J. L., & Nicholls, D. E. (2019). Roles of cyberbullying, sleep, and physical activity in mediating the effects of social media use on mental health and wellbeing among young people in England: a secondary analysis of longitudinal data. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 3(10), 685–696.


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