Technology! It’s changed our lives, hasn’t it? Smartphones, social media, apps and more – they have so many amazing benefits. That’s why practically everyone uses them!

kids screen time and mental health

At the same time, too much of a good thing can turn into a harmful thing.

Many parents are wondering, “Does technology harm children’s mental health?

As exciting, innovative technology continues to unfold, an unfortunate trend is also rising: more mental health problems in children.

So … does screen time harm children’s mental health?

It’s been just over a decade since YouTube launched (in 2005) and Apple released its first iPhone (in 2007). Social media literally exploded – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. Did you know that by 2014, the number of mobile devices in the world exceeded the number of people?

Research shows that mental health problems have increased at the same time as the growing popularity of smartphones and social media:

However, anyone who has taken an statistics class knows that correlation does not imply causation. In other words, just because two things happen at the same time doesn’t mean there is a cause-and-effect relationship.

Researchers can’t say for sure that technology is a direct cause of worsening mental health. Let’s be honest, it’s rarely that simple anyway. We’re more likely seeing a rise in mental health issues because of several intertwined factors.

Possible digital threats to healthy childhood

An interesting theory comes from Victoria Prooday, an occupational therapist who works with children. She has seen a big change in children’s emotional health during the past 15 years. She calls it a “silent tragedy” and identifies some possible reasons. Today’s children are being deprived of the fundamentals of a healthy childhood, such as:

  • Emotionally available parents
  • Clearly defined limits and guidance
  • Responsibilities
  • Balanced nutrition and adequate sleep
  • Movement and time outdoors
  • Creative play, social interaction, opportunities for unstructured times and boredom

While reading through this list, I found myself asking, How many of these factors have been influenced by technology? There’s an argument for all of them!

For example, Prooday points out that instead of emotionally available parents, kids have “digitally distracted parents.” It’s possible that our own behavior with technology (like texting while your child is trying to tell you what happened at school) is part of the problem!

Here are a few other ways technology interferes with healthy habits:

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Blue light from screens affects people’s ability to fall asleep. And kids who take electronics to bed get distracted and don’t sleep well.

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Kids spend hours playing increasingly addictive video games, instead of playing outside.

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Teens now prefer texting to face-to-face communication, leading to less real social interaction.

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Toddlers don’t have a chance to get bored and learn to manage their emotions because they are given screens as pacifiers.

The point is, even when technology is not directly to blame for worsening mental health, it influences factors that DO have an impact on our mental health.

Related: What is Screen Time Really Doing to your Kid’s Brain?

You can raise healthy kids in a digital world!

Prooday recommends some healthy lifestyle hacks to improve your child’s well-being:

  • Provide nutritious food and limit snacks.
  • Spend one hour a day in green space: biking, hiking, fishing, watching birds and insects.
  • Have a daily technology-free family dinner.
  • Play one board game a day.
  • Involve your child in one chore a day (folding laundry, tidying up toys, hanging clothes, unpacking groceries, setting the table etc).
  • Implement a consistent bedtime routine to ensure that your child gets lots of sleep in a technology-free bedroom.

I love her suggestion of a technology-free dinner. Family dinner should be a time to nourish your body as well as your relationships with each other! (Quality relationships help improve mental health, yay!). You can enjoy a few laughs as a family by watching Common Sense Media’s #DeviceFreeDinner videos on YouTube. And then make a family commitment to put your phones away in time for dinner.

Pornography is not a healthy coping skill for loneliness

So let’s talk about one of the worst emotions ever – loneliness. U.S. adults feel lonelier than ever, according to a CIGNA study released in 2018.

The loneliest group, though, are young adults who were children just a few years ago: Generation Z (adults ages 18-22). These young people grew up totally immersed in a tech-driven culture. This group also “claims to be in worse health than older generations.”

These findings align with the results of a 2017 study where 32% of 16-24 year olds said they felt lonely most or all of the time – compared to only 11% of people over 65.

Some children, teens, and adults who feel lonely turn to pornography looking for relief. Looking at pornography is not an effective coping skill – I repeat; looking at porn does not make people feel better in the long run. In fact, it only makes the feelings of loneliness WORSE!

Mark Butler, a professor at Brigham Young University, describes that his study “suggests a close and painful partnership between pornography and loneliness for some users.” Butler and his colleagues discovered that as some people felt an increase in loneliness, they watched more pornography. As they watched more porn, their loneliness only intensified.

Butler calls this vicious cycle an “entrapment template … where the consequences of coping with loneliness through pornography use only increase loneliness, potentially locking the two in a self-fueling cycle.”

Start preparing kids to stay free from the trap of pornography while they are young! Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids is a safe and comfortable way to start teaching your 6 – 11 year old to build their digital defense skills. And
Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr.: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds is perfect for ages 3-7. Sooner is safer!

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Help kids choose positive ways to manage stress

What are some healthy coping skills? Here are some examples that kids and adults can use.

  • Physical activity
  • Listen to music
  • Draw
  • Spend time with a pet
  • Talk to a friend or family member
  • Deep breathing
  • Read a book
  • Take a bath

You can get even more ideas along with worksheets for both kids and adults here.

5 Tips for building kid’s mental health

As researchers continue to zero in on the reasons why more children and teens feel lonely, isolated, and depressed, you can establish positive habits in your own family to help promote good mental health and neutralize the effects of screen time.

1.    Teach your children how to take care of their physical bodies

The physical and mental aspects of your body are closely connected! The right  nutrition, sleep, and physical activity boost our immune system and mental health. To protect your child’s sleep, set a time in the evening when screens are put away outside of the bedroom (Bonus: This is also a protective factor from pornography.) Make sure sedentary time is balanced with physical activity – better yet, regularly involve the whole family in a game of tag or a swimming outing.

2.     Encourage social interactions offline

You can have hundreds of “friends” online but still feel lonely as you mindlessly scroll through feeds on social media. I don’t envy teens who, thanks to social media, see pictures and status updates every time someone they know is having a good time at a party. Talk about feeling left out!

To overcome feelings of isolation, help your child spend face-to-face time with friends and family. They’ll be creating memories and strengthening relationships with people they can turn to when something difficult comes along.

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kids screen time and mental health

3.     Model good digital hygiene habits

“Digital hygiene” is what Dr. Nicholas Westers calls setting boundaries and limits on technology. To safeguard mental health, he recommends:

  • Establish “no phone times” during dinner and before bedtime.
  • Take technology out of the bedroom

Additional boundaries and limits to consider:

  • Be clear about the amount of screen time allowed each day (not including homework)
  • Turn off most notifications so that you and your kids are not constantly interrupted and distracted
  • Ensure the content of your child’s games, apps, TV, and social media are appropriate for her age
  • Equip your child with a CAN DO Plan so they know what to do when they encounter pornography
  • Occasional “technology fasts” to reset tech habits

Keep in mind that if we want our children to have good digital hygiene, then we need to model healthy habits too. One thing I’ve recently done to improve my tech use is move my social media apps from the first screen of my smartphone to the last screen. Having to swipe a few times has lessened the temptation to scroll through social media; now I spend more time playing with my daughter!

4.     Engage in a variety of activities

Playing video games and watching YouTube videos are okay in moderation! Don’t panic if your child enjoys these things. Just make sure that your child also participates in activities that help build their confidence and competence in the physical world.

The Child Mind Institute nails it with this:

Another possible source of depression may be what teenagers are not doing while they’re spending time on social media, including physical activity and things that generate a sense of accomplishment, like learning new skills and developing talents.

Learn to play an instrument, take a cooking class, get involved in karate or gymnastics … activities like these will build your child’s confidence and strengthen social connections.

5.     Don’t be afraid to seek professional help

Some people experience mental health problems whether they have positive habits or not – just as our physical bodies come down with sicknesses despite our best efforts. It’s important to get help from a counselor when needed. If you ever wonder whether your child needs help from a professional for a mental health problem, it never hurts to ask his/her pediatrician.

If pornography is a challenge for your child, Does My Child Need Counseling? Reassuring Advice from a Porn Addiction Therapist can help you decide what to do to help.

There are many more things you can do to boost your child’s mental health. While the research on whether screen time damages children’s mental health is new and growing, consider this statement about kids and technology:

We are conducting the world’s greatest experiment on our kids in real time — and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.” Liz Perle, Founding Editor-in-chief of Common Sense

Many of these ways to help kids may sound obvious – but they were easier to do in times past. Restoring these healthy practices into your family’s lifestyle will have long-lasting effects. The more intentional we are helping children manage their technology use, the safer they will be from possible negative effects – even some that we may not know about yet!

Get your free list of Emotional Needs!

This list will help you identify which needs can help build your child’s well-being. Click on the image below for your copy!

Ashley Beveridge
Ashley is a wife, mother, and licensed school counselor. (Also a sister, daughter, chocolate-lover, and fair-weather skier). During her four years working in an elementary school, she has seen the difference a proactive parent can make in the life of a child. Ashley looks forward to helping parents and all adults feel empowered to protect, teach, and advocate for children.