impact of screen time

By Amy Rose, APRN at Foundation Collaborative Care

The way in which we interact with screens is ever-evolving. Whether this is through the world of social media, gaming, or streaming our favorite episodes on our platform of preference, there is no denying that our exposure to screens has grown exponentially over the last decade.

Is Screen Time a Problem?

In my work with pediatric patients and as a new parent, I often find myself curious about the impact screen exposure may have on developing minds and if it is necessary to limit exposure for my son and, frankly, myself. On the other hand, I also wonder if there have been any notable benefits from digital media.

As a family psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, it is certainly not uncommon for parents to enter my office with a gripe around their children and their use of social media. Typically, parents will ask me to weigh in on their child’s use of their devices and how it may be impacting them negatively.

While there seem to be numerous news headlines about how screens are destroying civility, the truth is after literally thousands of studies, we have only a few clear answers regarding the cause-and-effect screens have on the brain and the link between use and associations with negative health outcomes. This research suggests that there seem to be two categories of negative experiences, physical and cognitive.

Physical Impact of Screen TimeMental Health Screen Time

Some of the physical problems with screen time include dry eyes, headaches, obesity, and sleep disturbance.

Researchers report changes in sleep patterns and insomnia, noting that as a person moves closer to a device with a screen, they risk increased exposure to light. In particular, the more blue light exposure a person has, the greater the risk of insomnia. Arguably, the light exposure from watching a television screen at a distance involves less light than a close-up screen such as a phone, tablet, or laptop screen.

In addition to insomnia, we run the risk of developing headaches or increasing the frequency of headaches when using close-up screens. When eyes are focused close-up for long periods, they can have a tough time adjusting to seeing in the distance. That can cause eye strain and potentially headaches.

Cognitive Impact of Screen Time

As well as these physical problems, research reveals some cognitive issues, including worsening mental health, executive functioning issues, depression, and anxiety. In one study among 14- to 17-year-olds, those using screens seven or more hours per day were more than twice as likely to ever have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety.

Interestingly, “gaming was associated with lower levels of emotional understanding in boys but not in girls. This suggests that different types of screen activities may have distinct effects on the emotional development of children based on their gender”.

Moreover, “effects of addictive screen time use include a decrease in social coping skills and the development of craving behaviors resembling substance dependence.” Coupling the negative impact screen time has on executive functioning, the system in our brain that helps control impulses, regulate emotions, and self-monitor, with most digital platforms utilizing a variable reward system, it makes sense that some people would begin to display behaviors that are like what is seen in individuals with a gambling addiction. A variable reward system works to hook people in by methodically balancing “the hope that you’re going to make it big with a little bit of frustration.” When thinking more about this, gaming, in a sense, almost feels predatory to the developing mind.

                                          Southern NH Health Behavioral Health
Positive Aspects of Screen Time

But it can’t all be bad, right? I can speak to this personally. When the world shut down in March 2020, my private practice on the grounds of a hospital was immediately impacted without warning. My colleagues and I received an email from the hospital administration informing us that, effective immediately, only hospital staff were permitted on the grounds. Luckily, at a time when my patients were struggling the most with psychiatric symptoms, screens were accessible, and we almost seamlessly transitioned to a virtual platform to continue mental health treatment. Without this technology, patients otherwise wouldn’t have been seen.

Research agrees that there are positive impacts. In fact, one 2018 study tested the effectiveness of utilizing digital media as a source of anxiety relief. The outcome was astounding in that it showed that the sense of control coupled with distraction from engaging in a game was better at reducing anxiety than valium, a remedy that is frequently used as a rescue medication for anxiety and panic disorders.

In addition, “research suggests that electronic books and learning-to-read applications may improve young children’s early reading skills and creative thinking capacities”. Beginning at approximately two years of age, high-quality educational television programs can serve as an additional means for early language and literacy development in children. “Such programs can also support cognitive development, promote positive racial attitudes, and encourage imaginative play.” Additionally, research shows that such content can “enhance social and language skills for all children aged two years and older, particularly for those who are living in poverty or facing other disadvantages”.

Mental Health Screen TimePros and Cons

Given there are both benefits and risks associated with screen use, it seems to matter most just how much time we spend on screens and what it is we are doing with them. This is true for children and adults alike. Since we know children learn best by watching the adults around them modeling appropriate boundaries with screens and electronics, it is essential to effecting change. In fact, “the amount of screen time parents and kids watch is closely associated; kids who live in homes where watching TV is encouraged are more likely to engage in binge-watching themselves.”

As a family unit, reflecting on health might include thinking of the quality of our relationships with family and friends, how well we sleep, and our engagement in physical activity. These are the parts of our lives that are pivotal to overall wellness. Should screen time exposure impede these experiences, this should be a cue to begin thinking about the impact, implications, and how to reduce exposure.


Amy Rose, APRN at Foundation Collaborative Care


  • Armitage, H. (2022, December 9). Screen time: The good, the healthy and the mind-numbing. Scope.
  • Mindel, J. (2023, July 27). How Screen Time Really Affects Your Health.  
  • Muppalla, S. K., Vuppalapati, S., Pulliahgaru, A. R., & Sreenivasulu, H. (2023). Effects of Excessive Screen Time on Child Development: An Updated Review and Strategies for Management. Cureus, 15(6)
  • Ruder, D. B. (2019, June 19). Screen Time and the Brain | Harvard Medical School.; Harvard Medical School. 
  • Shapiro, N. (2018). When Screen Time Is Actually a Good Thing. Psychology Today
  • Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventive Medicine Reports, 12(12), 271–283.