Student Well-Being What the Research Says

Screen Time Can Raise Children’s Chance of OCD. Educators Can Help Prevent That

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 20, 2022 4 min read
An ethnic nine-year old boy plays a game on a digital tablet. He is sitting on a couch in a modern living room.
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The more time preteens spend in online gaming or glued to video playlists, the greater their risk of developing obsessive-compulsive disorder.

That’s the conclusion of the latest findings in the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, the largest long-term study of brain development in U.S. children. The current research, published last week in the Journal of Adolescent Health, tracked the health and habits of more than 9,200 9- and 10-year-olds.

Among a variety of mental health conditions, researchers tracked the development of OCD, a disorder in which parts of the brain involved with attention and threat do not communicate properly with other parts of the brain. This leads to cycles of intrusive, obsessive thoughts and urges, as well as repetitive behaviors—like hand-washing—that are intended to relieve anxiety from the rumination. There’s no single cause of OCD, though genetics do play a role.

But researchers found that children’s digital behaviors may also prime them to develop these obsessions and compulsions. For every additional hour spent in video gaming, the preteens were 13 percent more likely to develop obsessive-compulsive disorder within two years. Their risk of OCD also rose 11 percent for every additional hour they spent watching online videos.

Must-see, must-play media

What makes watching a YouTube playlist different from vegging out in front of a television? Algorithms, according to the researchers.

“With traditional television viewing, it’s harder for kids to be so focused in one content area because there’s a limited number of channels and programming,” said Jason Nagata, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco.

“On YouTube, there’s almost an unlimited amount of very similar content that anyone can produce. And if you search for one content area—say dieting or weight loss—then you immediately are suggested other related content, and it can lead kids into rabbit holes,” Nagata said. “Online videos can uniquely allow for a compulsive viewing of similar content through algorithms and advertisements, which I think can exacerbate obsessions and compulsions and can eventually lead to OCD.”

Earlier studies have also linked such screen time to adolescent eating disorders and disruptive behavior. While the OCD study also looked at whether children’s use of social media increased obsessive thoughts, 9- and 10-year-olds used platforms much less than older adolescents, and did not show any significant effects from them.

While most of the study took place before the pandemic, the school disruptions and social isolation exacerbated screen use among children and teens. By the time follow-ups were done in 2020, video watching and gaming among study participants had doubled from four to eight hours a day.

“During the pandemic, we really saw an explosion of mental health issues, in the context of the pandemic but also in a rise in screen use among teens,” Nagata said.

Banning digital use isn’t a good solution, said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, who was not part of the study.

“Most things in life are an interaction of nature and nurture: We have a certain genetic predisposition to develop a trait or disorder, and then exposure to something—whether it’s an experience or a chemical or a toxin—increases the probability of developing it,” Christakis said. “And historically those experiences happened in the real world, because that’s where we all lived. But now increasingly they happen in the virtual world, so it’s not at all surprising that we find that online or screen-based experiences trigger real-life behavior changes.”

What schools can do

The study suggests schools can play a critical role in making sure students develop healthy digital habits at a key time in their development. Before puberty, children show more concrete thinking and impulsive behavior compared to older adolescents. Young adolescents may be less able to consider the risks, benefits, and long-term consequences of excess video gaming than older teens, Nagata said.

“I think the most important thing schools can do, though, is to have frank conversations with children about media literacy and healthy media habits. When you’re asking them to be on their computer—both the portal to their school and the portal to YouTube and internet gaming environments—it has sort of built-in distraction,” said Christakis, who is also the chief science officer for Children and Screens: the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, which studies technology use.

“Given that 60 percent of teens report they are concerned about their own overuse of screen media, it’s a real missed opportunity for us to not help them put some limits on it.”

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