OCD could be triggered by too much screen time in pre-teens

SAN FRANCISCO — Time to dust off the library card! Modern devices like smartphones and tablets are probably best reserved for adults, or at least older teenagers, according to a new report from the University of California, San Francisco. Scientists report the odds of developing OCD among pre-teens over a two-year period increased by 15 percent for every hour spent playing video games, and 11 percent for every hour spent watching videos.

The findings will surely give parents more reason to limit the amount of time their kids spend staring at tablets, phones, and other devices each day.

“Children who spend excessive time playing video games report feeling the need to play more and more and being unable to stop despite trying,” says lead study author Dr. Jason Nagata, assistant professor of pediatrics at UCSF, in a media release. “Intrusive thoughts about video game content could develop into obsessions or compulsions.”

Dr. Nagata notes that watching videos can lead to further compulsive viewing of similar content. Moreover, algorithms and advertisements can exacerbate such behavior.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), meanwhile, is a mental health condition characterized by recurring and unwanted thoughts and compulsive repetitive behaviors. Left untreated, OCD can seriously deteriorate one’s quality of life, as well as the lives of their loves ones. “Screen addictions are associated with compulsivity and loss of behavioral control, which are core symptoms of OCD,” Dr. Nagata notes.

A total of 9,204 preteens (ages 9-10) were asked by researchers how much time they usually spent on various online platforms/apps. The average response was 3.9 hours per day. Then, two years later, the caregivers of those same children were asked about any OCD symptoms and diagnoses. Screen use for educational purposes was excluded from consideration.

After two years had passed, 4.4 percent of the adolescents had indeed developed new-onset OCD. Both video games and streaming videos were associated with a higher risk of developing OCD. Texting, video chatting and social media, on the other hand, were not individually associated with OCD. Study authors theorize this may be because studied preteens didn’t use them much. So, results for texting, etc, may differ among a sample of older teens.

This study is just the latest in Dr. Nagata’s work focusing on screen time. Earlier this year his team discovered excessive screen time is linked to disruptive behavior disorders among 9-11 year olds, with social media being deemed the biggest contributor. Also, last year, his research team found adolescent screen time had doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“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,” Dr. Nagata concludes. “Families can develop a media use plan which could include screen-free times including before bedtime.”

The study is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.