Mental health dangers of screen addiction and how to have a digital detox

woman on phone late at nigh to represent Screen addiction mental health. (Getty Images)
Is your mental health being affected by screen addiction? (Getty Images)

While we all know too much screen time isn't great for our mental health, we might not realise just how damaging it can be.

Due to a "worrying" rise in screen addiction treatment enquiries, experts are now calling for a national digital detox in January to help combat "the world's most widespread bad habit". Across the UK, the number of people seeking treatment at the Priory alone for screen-based addictions has grown by more than 100% in three years, according to new figures.

"This is the time of year for New Year's resolutions, when we think about our bad habits and ways to make small changes to improve our lives," says Beth Tudgay, addiction expert and therapy lead for Priory’s services in Birmingham.

"For most of us, reducing screen time would be the most impactful way to improve our wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those around us in 2024."

What is screen addiction?

"When we think of addicts and addictions we often think of substance mis-use or recreational drugs, but screen addiction is a serious problem. It is the world’s most widespread bad habit, which develops into an addiction for some and seriously impacts our mental health," says Tudgay.

But what exactly do we get addicted to? "Opening up our phones releases dopamine in our brains – a neurotransmitter known as the 'happy chemical'. Over time, we can develop an association between using our phones and gaining a rewarding, pleasurable experience, which can soon spiral into an addiction," she explains.

"The rise in screen addiction prevalence is worrying. So taking proactive steps to cut back is important for all of us, and parents may find this particularly helpful so they can better support children to do the same (and set a healthy example)."

Children using a digital tablet, lying on bed, in daylight
'Addictions start young,' warn experts. (Getty Images)

BACP-registered counsellor, Georgina Sturmer, adds, "As with other addictions, a screen addiction is usually a sign of something more serious that’s going on – that we have 'unmet needs' that aren’t being dealt with in our everyday life," she says.

"We are reaching for our devices as a coping strategy, a way of soothing ourself instead of dealing with something properly."

What are the mental health dangers of screen addiction?

Tudgay sees the damage caused by unhealthy screen habits in her patients all the time.

"It makes us lonely and feel disconnected from loved ones. It makes us tired, unhappy and stressed. For some people it can have severe psychological damage in the long-term, especially when the addiction starts at a young age," she says.

Sturmer points out that, while screen addiction might offer a quick fix, this is fleeting and it will only make any existing mental health difficulties worse, leading to a vicious cycle. "It often arises as a displacement activity when we are struggling with loneliness, stress, anxiety or having difficulty with our relationships," she says.

"But the challenge is that when we are feeling this way, time spent on a screen can often compound our difficulties, rather than alleviating them. Our screens can leave us feeling more alone, disconnected and unhappy with ourselves. They also get in the way of 'healthier' coping strategies, like getting outside, connecting with people, relaxing and gaining good quality sleep."

Portrait of bearded adult man watching TV at night while lying on couh in dark room and switching channels, copy space
If you want to give up anything in 2024, cut down on your screen time. (Getty Images)

What does a digital detox look like?

"Addictions start young. Parents know this of course but it can be very difficult to role model good behaviour when it comes to our devices, because so many of us are gripped by screen addiction ourselves," Tudgay acknowledges.

"One great way to cut back is to physically put our phones out of our sight during family time when we're at home. We often get lost in unnecessary activities on our devices by accident; maybe we picked it up to check messages but ended up scrolling social media for 30 minutes without realising. If we put our phones away in a drawer, it can significantly reduce the urge to pick them up."

She suggests setting measurable targets. "Your smartphone can tell you your average daily screen time. Why not set yourself a target to cut that time in half this January? Set yourself a day and time each week when you review how you’re doing, to keep yourself on track."

mobile phone in open drawer
Simple tricks can help with overcoming a screen addiction. (Getty Images)

How often should we have a digital detox?

As Tudgay has urged, detoxing in January is a great start. "If we make positive changes, then there are proven health and wellbeing benefits. Limiting social media use to 30 minutes each day, for example, can lead to significant reductions in symptoms of loneliness and depression."

But as we don't want to forget about the detox entirely come 1 February, how often should we do one?

"Any time spent away from screens can be beneficial to our mental health. So if we plan to kickstart it in January then that's absolutely a useful plan. But as part of our strategy, we should be thinking about how we can build in screen-free time to our everyday life," says Sturmer.

"It’s worth viewing our devices in a different way. Instead of enforcing set times without our screens, what about enforcing set times when we use our screens? Or keeping them located in a specific place [like the drawer!] so that we really notice when we are using them as we have to physically move towards them. You could also set yourself a goal of only using one screen at a time [aka not having the TV on while mindlessly scrolling your phone]."

It can help to first acknowledge all the things you use your screens for. "Maybe you need your phone as an alarm clock, or as a diary. Think about what you might need to implement in order to help you to put your phone down. It might mean reverting to an old-fashioned alarm clock, or a paper diary system."

family casual winter clothing and walking through their local park on a morning in December.
Less screen time means more time for healthier coping strategies like getting outside when you're struggling. (Getty Images)

"Different things will work for different people," Sturmer adds."But if we really want to make a permanent change, we need to embrace the benefits of a digital detox and understand the positive impact that it has on us."

If you work on your phone, it's all about setting boundaries, having different devices if you can, or only checking emails within work hours, and voicing your limits to others you work with so they don't expect you to be available 24/7. "It’s also likely to make you more productive, as when we spend time away from our screens, it can often improve our cognitive skills to be more effective and less stressed at work."

When you've started to make all these changes, Sturmer recommends tracking how they're making you feel, to remind yourself why the reduction in screen time is worth it. And how can you expect to feel? "Perhaps less distracted, less stressed, less overwhelmed. Really think about the positive impact of reducing your screen time and what it will deliver for your wellbeing."

Watch: How can I improve my mental health?