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The Impact of Screen Time on Mental Health: Navigating the Digital Age

Screens are ultimately unavoidable in today’s world. More and more, our work, education, leisure time, and social lives are taking place digitally rather than face-to-face.

screen time and mental health

While there are certainly benefits and positive outcomes to this technological development, giving us access to more information and social interaction at our fingertips, it’s also important that we are aware of the risks of too much screen time exposure, and take steps to limit our screen time for the sake of our physical and mental health.

How Screen Time Affects the Brain and Mental Health

Our brain relies on various chemicals for internal communication, one of which is dopamine, linked to the reward system. This chemical encourages survival-related activities by creating a desire for more. However, modern interactions, such as social media engagements or notifications, also trigger dopamine release, reinforcing screen time habits despite potential negative feelings afterward.

The brain operates with several different chemicals that help it to communicate with itself. One of those, dopamine, is associated with the body’s reward system.1 Biologically speaking, this chemical is meant to help you engage in activities crucial to your survival, like eating, social interaction, and sex. Dopamine is released when you engage in these activities to motivate you to continue to do this activity - it creates a feeling of desire.

When we get a “like” on social media, receive a text, or see a notification on our phones, dopamine is also released, making it more difficult to break the habit of using our phones. Our brains become wired to want more of whatever it is that triggers the surge of dopamine.

Whether or not we feel pleasure when we do these activities isn’t relevant to whether dopamine is released or not. So, after hours on your phone, you may not feel very good, but the dopamine surges were at play in keeping you scrolling.

Link to mental health

Several studies have shown that screen time among both children and adults has been linked to greater instances of depression and anxiety.5 In addition, screen time and social media use can have the following impacts on mental health:

  1. Poor self-image. Social media has become a place where people post the “best” versions of themselves to attract followers - often with the use of filters and editing tools. When the images of people we consume are seemingly perfect, our perception of what is “beautiful” becomes skewed to include only particular sizes and shapes. Celebrities, fitness models and influencers tend to be the images on our screens most often, and set the standards for how we think we should look.

  2. Social comparisons. This extends beyond looks to other areas of life as well, as we tend to compare ourselves to those who appear to have more (money, friends, success, etc.)  Some comparison can be healthy and beneficial, even motivating, but the overconsumption of other people’s lives online can lead to too much of it. When we get caught in a constant cycle of upward comparison, we can start to feel inadequate, incompetent, and depressed, rather than inspired to make changes.

  3. Loneliness. Research has shown that more often, people turn to social media when they feel lonely. The result, however, is feeling even lonelier.6 Rather than being a place to communicate, we often sit on the sidelines and observe other people’s lives from the screen, rather than interacting and being active participants.

  4. Sedentary lifestyle. When we replace other hobbies or activities with screen time, we are potentially losing out on opportunities to move our bodies and be active. Scrolling on a phone can lead to more time laying in bed or sitting on the couch, which impacts our overall physical and mental health. Sedentary lifestyles where exercise and movement are limited have a range of impacts, including but not limited to heart disease, weight gain, high blood pressure, certain cancers, as well as depression and anxiety.

How and why to impose limits on yourself or your children

We want a variety of activities to make up our daily lives and those of our children too. When considering imposing limits on screen time and social media, consider the other opportunities this will open up for a face-to-face social time, quiet reflective time, creativity, physical activity, and more.

Start gradually - initiate a rule of one hour with no screen time after school or before bed, at meal times, or during homework time, and monitor how the change makes you and your children feel.

While there may be resistance at first, remember this is a long-term investment in your well-being, and eventually the desire and dopamine surges will drop off.


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