Fact: we live our lives surrounded by screens. With smartphones, tablets, laptops and TVs readily available both at home and work, it's little wonder research analysed by University College London found that nearly a quarter of the British population spend over 10 hours a day looking at a screen.
Spending most of our day in the digital world has become a normal part of daily life. What isn't so normal, however, is that too much screen use may affect our emotional wellbeing, and has been associated with anxiety and depression, says Brian Primack, MD, PhD, Director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health at the University of Pittsburgh.
The last thing anyone needs is an unexpected derailment that makes it difficult to maintain a can-do attitude while trying to lose weight or make healthy choices. With this in mind, here are the facts about screens and wellbeing, and some gentle advice that could help beat those screentime blues.
Social media presence
Social media use appears to be the main culprit, primarily because it skews our perception of reality, says Dr. Primack, whose research focuses on adults, specifically those aged 19 to 32. “They don’t realize how heavily those things are curated and how careful people are to demonstrate only the most positive things that happen to them,” he says.
“In comparison, the rest of us can sort of feel inadequate. So, what that means is spending more time in that milieu can be related to more depressive or self-esteem issues.”
Both the total amount of time spent on social media and the frequency—how often you check your accounts—have been associated with an increase in depression and anxiety. Another problem: the more social media platforms used (think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, etc.), the greater the chance for depression, anxiety, and other negative emotional outcomes.
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“For example, if somebody uses two hours of social media a day but it’s all on one or two platforms, they have much less of a risk of having depression, compared to somebody who uses that exact same two hours a day but is dividing them up among nine different platforms,” says Dr. Primack. “It’s almost like being in high school and trying to be friends with nine different groups. Whereas, if you focus on just a couple groups, you may find a little more of a supportive vibe.”
Speaking of support, Dr. Primack also found that people who use more social media feel more socially isolated. “When people are socially isolated, they’re more likely to be depressed and more likely to not deal with their weight problem or something like that,” says Dr. Primack, who is also a professor of medicine, pediatrics, and clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Being online a lot may be what’s keeping us from more valuable, supportive in-person relationships.”
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Whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, computer, or television, using an electronic device late at night can contribute to depression, says James Phelps, MD, a psychiatrist with Samaritan Health Services in Corvallis, Oregon, and founder of PsychEducation.org. All screens emit blue light, which interferes with our body’s natural circadian rhythm, disrupting our sleep.
“Messing with electronics late at night affects your sleep cycle,” says Dr. Phelps. For some, sleep disturbance then affects mood, potentially causing or exacerbating anxiety or depression.
To keep screens from wrecking your sleep, give yourself a break before bed. “You want to shoot for something much closer to natural darkness for at least two hours before you try to fall asleep,” says Dr. Phelps.
Be especially aware of your screen time if bipolar disorder is a concern. “When [people who suffer from bipolar disorder] don’t get enough sleep, they’re more prone to have mood episodes,” explains Phelps, who also an expert in bipolar disorder. “They start to cycle between manic phases and depressed phases. So much so that just teaching people to have regular sleep hours is a clearly demonstrated effective treatment for bipolar disorder.”
If you must use screens before bed, Dr. Phelps suggests using special amber-lensed glasses. These glasses have been found to block the blue light that decreases the production of melatonin, a hormone produced by your body that’s associated with falling and staying asleep. Unfortunately, says Dr. Phelps, they work only in about 50 percent of people. For others, consider blocking the blue light directly on your devices using an app like Night Filter or Twilight, or software like f.lux.
“If you’re one of those people who find that messing with your sleep can mess with your mood, then this gives you the means by which you can manipulate your sleep without taking away your electronic devices entirely, which would really be the smartest thing of all,” says Dr. Phelps.
If you’re concerned about your mood, going on a screen time diet (like this one) may be one way to rein in the blues.
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