Study Finds Connection Between Screen Time And OCD In Early Adolescents

Screen time is still a relatively new phenomenon, with studies just beginning to explore its impact on children's developing brains (via American Psychological Association). While more long-term studies are needed to truly understand how the use of phones, tablets, and other screens is affecting kids' mental health, a 2022 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found a link between screen time and obsessive-compulsive disorder in pre-teens over a two-year period.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition characterized by obsessions and compulsions that cause distress, disrupt daily life, and take up more than an hour of the day, according to the American Psychiatric Association. In OCD, obsessive thoughts become intrusive and relentless, and it can be challenging to stop yourself from having them. Compulsive behaviors can also feel hard to stop, and it might feel distressing if you're not able to complete them. Examples of obsessions include disturbing sexual thoughts and fears of contamination, and examples of compulsions include repetitive hand washing or checking locks. OCD typically begins in childhood or adolescence, and it affects 2-3% of the American population.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 years old have no screen time at all, with the exception of video calls. Children ages 2-5 should get no more than one hour of screen time per weekday and three hours on weekend days. There are no guidelines for children over the age of 6.

Video games, videos, and the risk of OCD

In the new study, researchers analyzed data from 9,208 children in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. The children, aged 9-10 years old, completed a survey on their use of different types of screens at the start of the study. Two years later, children were assessed for OCD using a diagnostic tool called the Kiddie Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia (KSADS-5). Researchers found that children who played video games and watched videos were more likely to develop OCD (per Healthline).

For every hour of playing video games per day, the likelihood of developing OCD increased by 15%. Every further hour of watching videos, like YouTube, increased this risk by 11%. Dr. Jason Nagata, the study's lead author and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco, said that children reported feeling unable to stop playing video games, even when they wanted to, which could lead to obsessions or compulsions. Videos on YouTube had similar compulsive effects, made more difficult by algorithms and ads. However, researchers found that traditional television watching didn't increase the risk of OCD, perhaps because it's not as focused and has more limited programming.

While the study only made a prospective association between screen time and OCD, it's still important to help children with healthy screen use. According to the American Psychological Association, it can be helpful to co-view media with your children, talk to them about what they're watching, and implement boundaries when needed.