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Study Probes Connection Between Excessive Screen Media Activity and Mental Health Problems in Youth

March 21, 2023

Smartphones, tablets, gaming systems, and other screen devices have become a major temptation for people of all ages, but a new study is focusing on the possible connection between excessive screen media activity and mental health problems in youth.

The study, led by faculty at the Yale Department of Psychiatry and Columbia School of Nursing, analyzed screen media activity in over 5,100 9- and 10-year-olds who participated in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, the largest long-term analysis of brain development and child health in the United States.

It found that youth who spent the most time on their digital technology were statistically more likely to exhibit higher levels of internalizing problems two years later. Internalizing problems include depression, anxiety, social anxiety, somatic complaints, and other concerns. This association between frequent screen time and mental health problems was mediated by specific changes in brain development.

The scientists had previously found similar patterns of brain development in ABCD youth who spend the most time with technology and adults who consumed alcohol earlier in life. However, the current study did not find that the same brain changes mediated relationships between frequent screen time and externalizing problems two years later. Externalizing problems include physical aggression, verbal bullying, relational aggression, defiance, and other concerns.

The findings were published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.

“We had hypothesized findings of this sort, the relationship between high-frequency screen media activity and both internalizing and externalizing behaviors,” said Marc Potenza, MD, PhD, Albert E. Kent Professor of Psychiatry and professor in the Child Study Center and of neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine, and the study’s senior author. “We’re in a stage of understanding better brain-behavior relationships relating to screen media activity given substantial changes in how youth use digital technologies.”

Potenza, who directs the Center of Excellence in Gambling Research at Yale and the Yale Program for Research on Impulsivity and Impulse Control Disorders, said it is important for all stakeholders – health care providers, parents, school personnel, and even children – to understand the relationships between screen use and mental health because they have changed so rapidly as technology has become more prevalent in society.

“Parents are trying to navigate this complicated environment with their children without having the same lived experience when they were growing up,” he said. “Oftentimes parents feel ill equipped to help their children navigate such a complex environment.”

The study is intended to generate data to understand better both good and bad outcomes of technology use and to help generate better guidelines for health usage.

“The findings may help delineate processes contributing to internalizing behaviors and assist in identifying individuals at greater risk for such problems,” the authors wrote.

First author of the study is Yihong Zhao, PhD, assistant professor adjunct of psychiatry at Yale and a professor of data science at Columbia University School of Nursing. The co-author is Martin Paulus, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego.

This study was supported by grants fromChildren and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development (CSDMB001) and the National Institutes of Health.

Submitted by Christopher Gardner on March 21, 2023