Mental Health + Device Use in Teens

Studies show a link between electronic device use and depression in teens

By Kristen Reese | JoCo Magazine | Winter 2019

Depression is being reported at higher rates among America’s teenagers. Studies identify excessive electronic device use as a convincing link. The statistics from one study by Jean Twenge, author of “I Gen” and “The Atlantic,” show that teens who spent three or more hours a day on electronic devices are 34 percent more likely to suffer from depression, feel hopeless or seriously consider suicide. The number rises to 48 percent for teens who use electronic devices at least five hours a day.

“Kids who already have mental health issues are prone to rely on their devices more. If they are depressed or anxious, they are likely to spend more time by themselves in isolation on their phones or games,” said Jaclyn Kirwan, mental health clinician at the Johnson County Mental Health Center.

Dr. Natasha Burgert, private practice pediatrician and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics adds, “When we see something that has a negative effect, it’s time to stop and take a minute to have a conversation. Relook at it and do what’s right for the family.”

Be aware of signs that may indicate a child has a problem with screen time, including: choosing screen time over hanging out with friends, fatigue, lack of sleep, weight loss, emotional outbursts (anger, irritability, sadness), academic problems and behavioral issues (sneaking screens, aggression, entitlement “I HAVE to have my phone”). Many of these can also be signs of depression.

“The fear of kids having too much time on screens is that the coming generations will not develop their executive function skills, which are necessary to become more successful and functional adults,” said Kirwan.

Executive skills are located in the frontal lobe of the brain. Too much screen time creates changes in a child’s ability to develop executive skills. It can affect the ability to concentrate, ability to self regulate emotions, impulse control, working memory and social skills.

“We don’t know all the implications of how our mental health is impacted by screen time yet. Technology developed so quickly that most adults initially responded by allowing kids to set the rules around how and when screens were being used, Kirwan said. “There is now data coming out that gives parents and adults more guidance around how to help kids manage their screen use in a way that it lessens the impact of their learning and growth. Unfortunately, our responses as adults have been reactive instead of proactive, because those developing our technology in the past several years have been leaps ahead of the general public with their understanding and ability to capture our attention through screens.”

With higher rates of depression and the effects on executive skills, how do we get teens to spend less time on a device? Here are some suggestions:

• Block access.

• Turn the phone off.

• Turn off all notifications.

• Make sure if a child is bored, he/she doesn’t go straight to screens (it’s an indication to set limits).

• No screens in the bedroom or at the dinner table.

• Take a break one day a week.

• Have a family meeting to discuss where/when children may have their phones.

• Become educated, and then teach children how social media/phone/games keep them addicted.

• Consider how much screen time they already have had at school when deciding on amount they can have at home.

• Try the Moment App.

There is undoubtedly a rise in mental health issues among teens, whether it is from electronic device use, or student workloads. Educate yourself on the technology, set limits on screen time use, and know the warning signs of depression. More resources are available online at commonsensemedia.org or humanetech.com.

Krista Boan