Ten tips to help young people manage their screen time and digital mental health

by Nick Kenny

Teens using mobile phone

Estimates of how much time we spend on social media vary, but the average Australian will spend anywhere between 5 to 17 years of their waking life scrolling. Read that again. 5 to 17 years. On top of this, new research is finally able to show that prolonged social media usage has a direct impact on mental health outcomes, with those using social media five hours per day at more than double the risk of depression compared to those using it for two.

The reasons behind this are complex, but include: social comparisons and unrealistic expectations of self; body image complexes enhanced by filters; online bullying; reduced attention spans; disrupted dopamine feedback; time spent away from healthier activities; fear of missing out (FOMO); actual missing out (social exclusion made visible through certain apps); and probably the biggest of all, disrupted sleep.

1. Play it backwards. No one on their death bed will look back and wish they spent more time scrolling. If your screentime is becoming an issue, ask yourself how much of the time mentioned above do you want to take back?

2. Keep the phone out of the bedroom (or at least away from the bed). Research clearly shows that sleeping with the phone next to the bed disrupts sleep and is an easy temptation upon waking in the middle of the night. Keep it out of reach, or better yet, out of the room. If you feel you need your phone as an alarm clock, try doing what people did before smartphones existed. (Hint: buy an alarm clock).

3. Use grey scale. Most phones have the option to turn the colour scheme into black-and-white, which eliminates tech companies’ attention-seeking strategy of making their apps look like poker machines and their notifications the colour of emergency.

4. Turn off notifications. There was a Simpsons episode where Apu shows Marge that displaying items in her fridge more prominently will get the attention of the kids, and they will eat these foods as a result. It works. And so does the reverse – keeping things out of sight means less compulsion to engage with them.

5. Delete social media apps entirely (or at least remove them from the home screen). Removing easy access and/or visual reminders are a great way to add just enough friction to make habitual scrolling less of a thing.

6. Have a “morning window”. The last thing you need to start your day is to send your brain and your life somewhere outside of yourself. Create a tech-free space in the morning for yourself by simply putting “do not disturb” on between certain hours.

7. Have an “evening window”. The light emitted from devices is known to cause the brain to think that it’s still daylight, and when viewed in the lead-up to bed, this disrupts our sleep. On top of this, the addictive and stimulating nature of social media can make it both hard to put down and hard for the brain to wind down afterward. Create a window before bed of a minimum of 30 minutes (preferably a few hours) with no screen exposure. 

8. Use timers. App timers or website blockers that prevent the user from continuing after a certain time period can be a great tool to limit excessive usage. While most of these can be bypassed with a simple selection, they still bring the time spent into the user’s awareness. Think of them a bit like a “it will be time for bed soon” reminder.

9. Create tech-free zones. Creating spaces where families can connect is a fundamental need. Barring devices from dinner tables is a great start – aim to build on this with conversation that is engaging for everyone involved.

10. Look after your “mental diet”. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, researchers found the post-traumatic stress symptoms of those who were exposed to several hours of the news footage were higher than people who were in the actual event. Complaining social media feeds, doom-scrolling, fear and outrage click-bait – this is junk food for the brain. Clean up your feed, limit your intake of “news”, and unfollow those who consistently criticise and complain.

Share this with any young person, parent or carer you think it could help. Lastly, remember to model the behaviour yourself – they can’t be what they can’t see!

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Talking helps, we’re here for you

Any issue. Any time. If you’re ready to talk about it, we’re ready to help.

If you need to talk to someone NOW, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800. If life is in danger, call 000

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