Everyone, from doctors to parents, is concerned about the long term effects of too much screen time on today’s children and teens. But the conversation generally focuses on the long term effect on physical health since more screen time generally equates to less physical activity. However, new research suggests that for adolescents, the combination of overuse of media, lack of physical activity, and sleep deprivation may also increase the risk for mental illness.
The study, which was published in the journal World Psychiatry, came from a research team at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. The goal of the study was to determine if there was a link between certain risk behaviors, like alcohol and drug use, lack of sleep, sedentary behavior, and overuse of media, and the prevalence of mental illness and self destructive behavior.
The team used a questionnaire called the Global School-based Student Health Survey (GSHS) and collected data from more than 12,000 European teenagers between the ages of 14 and 16.
The results identified three different risk groups across the participants.
The first group was labeled the high risk group. These teens had a high incidence of all the risk behaviors listed above. The teens in this group, which accounted for about 13% of the participants, had an increased incidence of mental illness.
The second group was labeled the low risk group. These teens reported none of the risk behaviors or a very low frequency of these behaviors. This group accounted for about 58% of the participants.
The third group was the most surprising to the research team and was therefore labeled the invisible-risk group. This group reported extensive use of media, primarily sedentary behavior, and lack of sleep, but did not report participating in the other risk behaviors. This group, which included about 29% of the participants, reported similar levels of mental health issues including suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and depression as those in the high risk group.
The study indicates that teens that are spending a lot of time in front of screens and not getting enough physical activity or sleep may be as much at risk for mental health issues as those participating in the high risk behaviors generally associated with an increased risk of mental illness.
While parents, educators, counselors, and other caregivers would take alcohol abuse, drug use, or other high risk behaviors as warning signs that something serious may be wrong and seek help, they are less likely to become concerned about the behaviors exhibited by the invisible-risk group. The research suggests that teens engaging in these behaviors need to be assessed and monitored for mental health issues as closely as their high-risk peers.
One additional finding in the study was that boys who are at high risk for mental illness are more likely to fall into the high-risk group while girls are more likely to fall into the invisible-risk group.