Why Screen Time is an Addictive Drug & 5 Signs You are Overdoing it

August 25, 2021

Screen time is the amount of time spent using a device with a screen such as a smartphone, iPad, computer, television, or video game console.

Studies and research show that digital media and screen time affect how children think, interact and develop. This could be positive or negative, depending on the individual and the platforms used.

Medical experts have investigated the relationships between digital media use and mental health, and have found that overuse of screen time can lead to ‘digital addiction’ or ‘digital dependency’. Digital addiction is not limited to children or adolescents. Significant numbers of adults report finding it difficult to stay for hours with their phones or social media.

Why is screen time so addictive?

The addiction behind screen time is linked to dopamine, the feel-good hormone that is released by the brain when we experience an activity that gives us instant gratification. Dopamine is the exact same chemical that makes us feel good when we smoke, drink or take drugs. The link between screen time and dopamine explains why people crave screen time so often.

I have listed and broken down below signs you should watch out for as an indicator of excessive screen time overuse.

1. Mental health problems

A study was done in the UK to investigate levels of screen time used during the COVID-19 self-isolation, and its association with mental health. It showed that participants that spent more time in front of their screens recorded poorer mental health in general compared to those that spent less time in front of screens. Adults aged 34-64 years and women reported more mental health problems.

Another study done in the UK with a sample of 13–15-year-old adolescents asking about hours per day spent on specific screen media activities showed that hours spent on social media and Internet use were more associated with self-harm behaviors, depressive symptoms, low life satisfaction, and low self-esteem. Girls generally demonstrated stronger associations between screen media time and mental health indicators than boys.

There are other studies done that show a significant link between excessive screen time use and a range of mental health problems regardless of age and gender.

If you find yourself experiencing mood swings or negative emotions after spending too much time in front of a screen, it could be an indicator that you need to cut down on your screen time. Switch off your TV, shut down your computer, leave your phone at home and go for a short walk in nature. This is a good way to re-connect with the real world and appreciate its beauty.

2. Insomnia

Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. The human body has an internal clock that is responsive to light and controlled by melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain in response to sunset and sunrise. As the sun sets, melatonin levels increase and remain at a high level for the rest of the night, signaling to the body that it’s time to sleep. As the sun rises, melatonin levels begin to drop, signaling to the body that it’s time to wake up.

Children and Teenagers are the groups most affected by the negative effects of screen time.

Studies have shown that the light emitted from a screen, especially blue light, is similar to the light emitted by the sun. An article published by Harvard Health Publishing states that “blue wavelengths—which are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood—seem to be the most disruptive at night.” The article goes on to add that electronics with screens, as well as energy-efficient lighting, increase our exposure to blue wavelengths. In short, the extended exposure to the light emitted from screens disrupts the body’s production of the bedtime hormone melatonin, tricking the body into thinking it is daytime, and making it harder to fall asleep.

3. Obesity

Sitting for hours in front of a screen means having less time to focus on physical activities which leads to an increased risk of weight gain.

Harvard researchers have studied the possible connection between excessive exposure to night-time light to obesity. In the study they put 10 people on a schedule that gradually shifted their body clock using exposure to light and what they found was that their blood sugar levels increased, throwing them into a pre-diabetic state, and levels of leptin, a hormone that leaves people feeling full after a meal, went down. A reduction of leptin in the blood tricks the body into thinking you are hungry, this, in turn, leads to overeating which is the main cause of obesity.

Another possible link between screen time and obesity is the number of commercials we encounter that focuses on sugary and unhealthy food. A study done on the effect of advertising on the eating habits of children showed that children who watched food commercials along with the cartoons ate 45% more unhealthy snacks than the group who watched the cartoons without food ads.

Other diseases and problems linked to too much exposure to the light of a screen are cancer, diabetes, heart disease, headaches, dizziness, etc.

4. Behavioural impact

Have you noticed your child or teenager acting more aggressive towards you or his peers? Do they lash out when you try to cut down their screen time? Do you get irritated or anxious if you are without your phone for more than 30mins? A negative effect of screen time overuse is irritability. This is caused by withdrawal symptoms similar to that of drug or alcohol addiction. If you find that your craving for a screen is interfering with your day-to-day living, it is an indicator that you are overdoing it and need to cut it down.

Teenagers that watch content or play video games that focus on violence are more likely to engage in violent, antisocial behaviour.

Overuse of screen time that focuses on violence, be it in the form of a video game, music video, movie, etc, is linked to a rise in aggression. Studies show that children, teenagers, and even adults that spent a significant amount of time playing video games or watching clips with violet content were more accepting of violence, with some perpetrating in violent or aggressive behavior. This is as a result of the desensitizing effects of prolonged exposure to violent content and harsh images.

5. Reduction in work and academic performance

We know that people regardless of age or gender spend a significant amount of time using screens for work, communication, entertainment, etc. These are beneficial, however, when time that should be spent doing things like completing an important project, studying for an exam, preparing for a presentation, what have you, is spent scrolling through endless Facebook feeds or watching that funny cat video that plays the piano, our work or academic performance begins to suffer. Excessive screen time also takes from our ability to communicate effectively with one another and connect with nature. Daily non-educational use of screen time should be limited and monitored especially amongst children.

Who are the people most affected by the negative effects of screen time?

Children – Overuse of screen time is most damaging to children. Studies have shown that it harms their quality of sleep, affects their ability to concentrate during the day leading to behavioral problems and bad grades, encourages temper tantrums when parents attempt to reduce their screen time, due to withdrawal symptoms, etc. The list of the negative effects of too much screen time on children goes on. The number of time children spend in front of screens should be limited and always monitored by an adult. In 2010 Steve Jobs was on the stage promoting the release of the iPad. He demonstrated the various qualities and benefits of owning one, describing it as a wonderful device that brought you educational tools, allowed you to surf the web, watch videos, interact with other people, etc. Two years later during an interview, he was asked what his children thought of the iPad. His reply was “actually we don’t allow the iPad in the home. We think it’s too dangerous for them in effect”. I can’t stress enough how over-exposure to screens is damaging to the development of children. The general advice is for children to only use screens for about 2 hours a day, especially if it’s for non-educational purposes.

Teenagers and adolescents – Imagine the disastrous outcome of giving teenagers unlimited access to tablets, phones, social media, etc, where they can get temporary dopamine hits with very little effort. Imagine how addictive this could be. Studies have shown a link between screen time and a rise in depression, low self-esteem, self-harm, and suicidal tendencies among teenagers and adolescents. This makes a lot of sense because teenagers experience hormonal changes, mood swings, and extremes of emotional highs and lows. They are at a critical time in development and often have not experienced stress like an adult. This alone should encourage us to question how much screen time teenagers should be allowed to have.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that screen time itself isn’t bad. It’s the overuse of it, or what we use it for that is damaging. I must also stress the negative effects of social media sites on children. Screen time is addictive, if you won’t allow your children to experiment with drugs and alcohol, you shouldn’t let them stare at screens for long periods of time either. Parents have the sole responsibility of monitoring the amount of time their children spend in front of screens.

If you must expose yourself to long durations of screen time at night, Harvard Medical suggests the use of blue light blocking glasses or installing an app that filters blue/green light.


Harvard Health Publishing 2020, blue light has a dark side, Harvard Health Publishing, accessed 26 August 2021, <https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side>.

The association between screen time and mental health during COVID-19: A cross sectional study. Lee Smith, Louis Jacob, Mike Trott, Anita Yakkundi, Laurie Butler, Yvonne Barnett, Nicola C Armstrong, Daragh McDermott, Felipe Schuch, Jacob Meyer, Rubén López-Bueno, Guillermo F. López Sánchez, Declan Bradley, Mark A Tully. Psychiatry Res. 2020 Oct; 292: 113333.  Published online 2020 Jul 25. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113333 PMCID: PMC7382341

Twenge, J.M., Farley, E. Not all screen time is created equal: associations with mental health vary by activity and gender. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 56, 207–217 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-020-01906-9

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