Screen time linked to OCD in youth, study finds

Health

(THE HILL) — Screen time among teens doubled during the pandemic and was associated with poorer mental health and greater stress. Screen time has also been associated with binge eating and disruptive behavior disorders. A new study finds an association between certain types of screen time and a higher risk for obsessive compulsive disorder. 

In this study published Monday in the Journal of Adolescent Health, about 9,200 children ages 9 and 10 told researchers how much time they spend each day on various screen-based activities. These included playing video games, watching television shows or movies, watching videos (e.g. on YouTube), texting, using social media and making video calls. The average time participants in the study spent on screens was 3.9 hours per day. 

Two years later, the researchers followed up with the parents of the preteens to ask about obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms and diagnoses. OCD is when a person has uncontrollable, recurring thoughts or behaviors that the individual feels they need to repeat several times, according to the National Institutes of Health

For children in this study, each additional hour playing video games increased the risk of developing OCD by 13 percent. And for each additional hour watching videos, the risk of subsequent OCD increased by 11 percent. By the two-year mark, 4.4 percent of the preteens had developed new-onset OCD from their baseline. 

“Children who spend excessive time playing video games report feeling the need to play more and more and being unable to stop despite trying,” said Jason Nagata, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics at University of California San Fransisco. “Intrusive thoughts about video game content could develop into obsessions or compulsions.”  

The authors also point out that watching videos, such as on YouTube, can lead to compulsive viewing of similar content suggested by algorithms.

“Repeatedly watching the same or similar content could lead to overestimation of threats that could contribute to obsessions stemming from intrusions instigating fear,” the authors said. Watching television shows or movies was not associated with increased risk of OCD. 

The team also didn’t find a link between OCD and other types of screen time like texting, video calls and social media, but they note that the preteens in this study may not have participated much in these activities. This situation may be different with older teens or other groups. 

To mitigate risks linked to screen time, families can make a “media plan,” where they set up rules and limits, the researchers suggested. 

“Although screen time can have important benefits such as education and increased socialization, parents should be aware of the potential risks, especially to mental health,” Nagata said in the press release. “Families can develop a media use plan which could include screen-free times including before bedtime.” 

This study was a part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which will follow up with participants annually for 10 years. 

“My overall goal is to understand how digital technology use impacts adolescent health,” Nagata said in an email to Changing America.

Future plans for studies include exploring whether there are certain ages when adolescents are most sensitive to the effects of screens and whether screen time leads to mental health problems or vice versa, Nagata said.

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