Does screen time cause depression?

Disclaimer: This is going to be the least scientific piece on depression you’ve ever read! But it is based on actual research (as in, my own life experiences.) And I’m aware that this question alone is enough to fill a whole doctorate, but I promise I shall be concise.

Okay, and breathe 🙂 So I was considering writing a piece on the recent news that Nintendo was introducing Switches / Labo kits into schools, and as I was scrolling through a report on CNN, I read this striking paragraph…

Nintendo’s move into the classroom comes at a time when “screen time” is under scrutiny. Studies have shown kids and teens who are addicted to their smartphones tend to be less attentive, get less sleep and are more at risk of depression and suicide.

Now I haven’t read the study in question, but I’ll trust it – albeit open-mindedly. This snippet did, however, inspire me to write a brief ‘opinion piece’ on the subject of depression, and screens, as I’m quite experienced with both! So I thought I’d throw my four penneth into the ring, at the risk of mixing metaphors.

Think of the children!! Does Nintendo Labo threaten to destroy civilisation as we know it?

First, I don’t think this screen time scrutiny is anything new. I remember when I was about 14 we had a police officer who came into school to talk to us about something crime-related, and he told us that we should limit our video game time as it decreased our concentration levels. Now, who am I to argue with science, but this always struck me as odd given how much thinking and concentration is actually required to engage with a video game. Let’s face it, you’re not going to set a world record in Tetris whilst drunk and blindfolded. If anything, I would have thought a video game would improve reflexes, reaction times and problem-solving abilities?

Anyway, the stigma towards television / video games / computers / smartphones is undoubtedly prevalent in 2018, and it has been for a while. For some reason, it is screen time – specifically – that tends to get it in the neck. Scrolling through a piece of text on your phone, whilst on the train, is generally considered “low,” whereas flipping through the pages of a book is considered “educational” – even if it’s the Cookie Monster’s autobiography. Cookie Monster scores points simply for being a book, with pages and words – unlike those devilish screens, which presumably communicate in amorphous blobs. The fact that sitting reading a book can be just as socially isolating as an Until Dawn playthrough seldom appears in the dystopian articles from the Screen Police.

“Many pages good, no pages bad!” (Apparently.)

But how does all this relate to depression? Well if people are asserting that screens alone are acting as a source of depression, then I would like to challenge that. I know that people / scientists are insisting that the blue light from tablets and phones can trigger insomnia, but it’s hard for me to take that claim too seriously given that I’m exposed to blue light right up until the moment I hit the hay, and I sleep like a dog, drool and all. Moreover, all the people I know who struggle to get good quality sleep tend to have stressful lives and medical conditions that interfere with their shut-eye; never, ever have I heard the words, “I’m so happy and at peace and I’m really tired, but the flingin’ flangin’ blue light from my iPhone is keeping me awake!” I would argue that, if a person is struggling to conk out naturally, they might want to take a broader look at all of the factors that could be be having an impact.

Moreover, I believe the issue lies more in the content that people are observing on their smart phones. For example, there is a never-ending train of social media posts from our peers, usually comprising of people who humbly brag about their gorgeous spouses / weight loss achievements / exciting new job offers / brand new houses / brand new cars / adorable new baby, yadda yadda. And no one’s life can ever compare to the ‘highlight reel’ of Instagram. Heck, I don’t think I could even live up to my own highlight reel! I’m certain that this kind of thing must contribute to depression. And okay, it all comes via a The Dreaded Screen of Doom, but I don’t think you can blame the simple, misunderstood smartphone display for simply doing its job. “Don’t shoot the messenger!” as they say.

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Totally relatable.

Actually, the factor of social media is reinforced by the abstract in the aforementioned depression study:

Adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and adolescents who spent more time on nonscreen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services) were less likely. Since 2010, iGen adolescents have spent more time on new media screen activities and less time on nonscreen activities, which may account for the increases in depression and suicide.

So personally, I think the author has indeed stumbled across something significant. I don’t, however, think that the introduction of classroom Nintendo Switches is suddenly going to plunge children into a black pit of hopelessness and despair, as CNN inferred.

And now we come to the ‘advice’ part of this riveting piece, as prescribed by Dr Al. (I’m not a real doctor, before I get lawsuits.) I experienced depression from the age of 16 right through to the age of 29 and so I’ve learnt a bit about managing it. Obviously we’re all different and we’ve all had different experiences throughout our lives that have shaped us, but if you’re currently in a bad place and aren’t sure of what you can do to help yourself, here are some things that have worked for me. Maybe they will for you?

  • Make a routine and stick to it. If you’re stuck at home, make sure you get up at the same time everyday and treat your home-time as if it’s a job. (Albeit a comfy one!) 8am breakfast. 8:30am shower. 9am television. 12:30pm lunch. And so on. It will lend you a much-needed sense of control in a perhaps ‘hopeless’ situation.
  • ExerciseIf you’re able. Work out what’s within your ability and ease it into your daily routine. I always begin each day with a three mile / one hour walk, and do another one in the evening, as it helps me to feel connected to the world around me and gives me some fresh air and natural light. Also, when I think of all the citalopram / fluoxetine / diazepam / propranolol / alcohol(!) I’ve had over the years, I’ve found no better antidote for depression than walking. I can highly recommend it!
  • Make sure you talk to someone every day. This is a little harder to achieve, so if you don’t have anyone in your phone book (or that you can meet up with) you’ll need to be creative. It needn’t be too intense or for too long if you’re in a bad spot, but it can help to distract you from your own thoughts for a bit. And who knows, you might even enjoy it! I think it’s better to go and have a crumby time than not go at all.
  • And about those thoughts… We all have an inner dialogue; most of us are our own worst critics. Start replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts, e.g. switch out “everything is hopeless” to “anything is possible.” There’s no excuse for negativity, and when I say that I don’t mean that we should bury or ignore the sad things that happen to us. Life is hard! It’s about keeping things in perspective and focusing on the positive things that you can be thankful for each day, even if it’s just the fact that you had air in your lungs. Which is pretty darn amazing when you think about it!
  • Seek help. Don’t try to ‘go it alone.’ Reach out to your doctor and find out what your options are. My personal (non medical / non professional!) advice would be to only accept medication as a worst case scenario aid, or a temporary measure. In my experience, drugs don’t address root causes of any issues we have. And we all have them! I’m a much bigger advocate of counselling, but good counselling, so you might need to shop around to find the mental health professional that’s right for you.

But most importantly – don’t hate on that poor smartphone screen! It’s not the reason you’re feeling depressed. Like anything in this life, screens should be used in moderation. Enjoy video games, enjoy the world – heck, even enjoy those book things if they’re your bag 😉 And be sure to reach out if you want to chat. I might not be able to help, but I can always listen.

Have a great Wednesday y’all!

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