A daily structured routine with reduced screen time and news consumption, as well as getting enough sleep, can reduce the risk of mental health issues in young people, according to new research
With social restrictions in place for most of 2020 and 2021, many of us have found solace in behaviours or past-times we already had prior to the pandemic. As a result, many of us may have ploughed a few too many hours into hobbies like reading, gaming, and Netflix-bingeing.
Studies in the past have drawn links between activities that involve extended screen time and mental health issues, while excess news consumption and poor sleep have also been implicated in issues such as depression and anxiety.
But how much of any of these behaviours can actually result in a detrimental impact on our mental health? And can making changes to any of them actually benefit our psychological wellbeing?
New research suggests so. A study by researchers at Harvard University in the US asked 184 young people and their caregivers to fill out a questionnaire assessing their social behaviours, any potential mental health issues, and any pandemic-related triggers between April and May 2020. The participants were then assessed again between November 2020 and January 2021.
According to the team's findings, pandemic-related stressors were strongly associated with both internalising and externalising symptoms of psychological distress which, early in the pandemic, could be linked with screen time and news consumption: those who spent less time on digital devices and consuming news experienced fewer externalised symptoms.
In fact, the strong association between screen time, news consumption and psychological distress was completely absent among participants with less than 2 hours exposure to either.
Spending more time in nature also had a beneficial effect, specifically on internalised symptoms, while more structured daily routines and more regular periods of recommended sleep resulted in fewer externalised symptoms.
Using these findings as a basis to deploy strategies to regulate our daily lives and our behaviours could help protect our mental wellbeing, say the study authors.
"Mental health problems increased dramatically among children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among those who experienced high levels of pandemic-related stressors including serious illness or death of a family member, significant financial loss, and social isolation.
"A number of simple strategies families engaged in appeared to promote better mental health during the pandemic including having a structured daily routine, limiting passive screen time use, limiting exposure to news media about the pandemic, and to a lesser extent spending more time in nature, and getting the recommended amount of sleep."
Read the full study paper here.
Written by Marco Ricci
Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health