Digital technology has become more integrated into the lives of adolescents than ever before. Most evidence indicates an association between high levels of screen time and unfavorable psychological outcomes. One mental health condition of concern as screen use ubiquitously rises obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The condition involves recurrent and unwanted thoughts and repetitive behaviors that a person feels driven to perform. These intrusive thoughts and behaviors can become severely disabling for the sufferers and those close to them.
A recent study by UC San Francisco researchers determined the prospective associations between baseline screen time and OCD. They found that the odds of developing OCD over two years increased by 15% for every hour they played video games and 11% for every hour they watched videos.
Jason Nagata, MD, lead author of the study and assistant professor of pediatrics at UCSF, said, “Children who spend excessive time playing video games report feeling the need to play more and more and being unable to stop despite trying. Intrusive thoughts about video game content could develop into obsessions or compulsions.”
“Watching videos, too, can allow for compulsive viewing of similar content – and algorithms and advertisements can exacerbate that behavior.”
“Screen addictions are associated with compulsivity and loss of behavioral control, which are core symptoms of OCD.”
For the study, scientists analyzed prospective cohort data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, which includes 9,204 preteens ages 9-10 years. The participants were asked how much time they spent on different platforms; the average was 3.9 hours per day.
After two years, researchers asked participants’ caregivers whether the teens developed OCD symptoms. The use of screens for educational purposes were excluded.
4.4% of preteens reported new-onset OCD at the two-year mark. Both playing video games and watching streaming videos were linked to an increased chance of developing OCD. Social media, video chat, and texting did not separately correlate with OCD. Still, researchers speculate that this may be because the preteens in the sample did not use these platforms frequently. Results for older teens could vary.
Nagata said, “Although screen time can have important benefits such as education and increased socialization, parents should be aware of the potential risks, especially mental health. Families can develop a media use plan which could include screen-free times, including before bedtime.”