The National Institute of Health estimates that kids spend an average of five to seven hours a day using screens for entertainment, which is equal to or even greater than the total time spent in the classroom. This has increased two and a half hours a day from just 10 years ago.
Surveys are showing that they also face more anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles than previous generations. There are a number of factors thought to be contributing to this, but screen time is a major one, according to Peggy Scallon, MD, medical director of the FOCUS Adolescent Mood Disorders program in Oconomowoc.
“There are huge implications for youth,” Dr. Scallon says. “What are they not doing when they’re on screens? What experiences are they missing out on?”
The distractions of the screen mean less time for homework, physical activity, family interactions, and face-to-face time with peers. Without these necessary social interactions, kids are growing up unprepared and unable to cope—sometimes creating an unhealthy environment for their mental well-being.
“We know that anxiety and depression are correlated with high levels of screen time,” Dr. Scallon says.
The content on the screen matters just as much as the amount of time spent on them. Teens grow up looking at airbrushed models on Instagram or seeing friends doing something fun without them. Dr. Scallon warns that some then perceive their own life as unglamorous in comparison.
Bullying is another issue, which has changed significantly since parents themselves were kids.
“Kids may be bullied while sitting on the couch next to their parents who may not even know it, and the kids can’t escape it,” Dr. Scallon says. “They carry these phones with them 24/7, so they are experiencing near-constant social scrutiny.”
Gaming addiction and screen time
Around 91% of kids growing up today play video games. Dr. Scallon says that kids who spend too much time playing games, at the detriment of other activities, can also show signs of addiction.
“These games are very compelling for kids, and they often engage in gaming at the expense of other activities.” Dr. Scallon says. “And when kids use screens excessively, it can lead to anxiety, depression, family conflict, or another mental health disorder.”
As explained in an earlier blog with Dr. Heather Jones, supervising psychologist for Rogers’ FOCUS Adolescent Mood Disorders program, kids can create a cycle of avoidance by using games, TV, or phones to avoid dealing with the challenges of anxiety, depression, or another mental health disorder.
“In the short term, I might be distracted by the games, but this leads to increased feelings of depression in the long term because I’ve sat around all day without getting anything productive done,” Dr. Jones explains.
How Rogers handles screen time with kids
When a child or teen comes into one of Rogers’ residential programs, one of the big adjustments for them is getting used to much less screen time. It doesn’t always go over well at first, but Dr. Scallon says that this soon changes. “They will tell us openly ‘I feel so much better without having my phone,’” she explains.
When spending too much time with screens is the issue, it can be difficult coming up with a plan to reintegrate the electronics after treatment. Rogers asks parents to set limits on device use, remove certain devices from the house, and to lead by example.
Dr. Scallon adds, “It’s absolutely important for parents to model good behavior and etiquette for screens and devices, to limit their use, and to prioritize their relationship with their child. One of our biggest challenges in planning for discharge is working with kids and parents to limit and monitor the use of screen time in order to maintain health and wellbeing.”
Rogers treats children and adolescents struggling with mental health disorders including depression and mood disorders, eating disorders, OCD and anxiety, and addiction; in addition to a unique program that addresses mental health concerns for kids with autism spectrum disorder.