ADHD News & Research

Research Links Screen Time to Emotional Dysregulation, OCD

Screen time and video game play among children are tied to emotional dysregulation and compulsive behavior, respectively, according to two recent studies.

December 20, 2022

Screen time and video game play are tied to emotional dysregulation and compulsive behavior in children, respectively. The first finding comes from a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics that found frequent use of digital devices to calm young children may lead to increased emotional dysregulation, particularly in boys and children with strong temperaments.1

Researchers said using devices, such as mobile phones or tablets, to soothe dysregulated young children may hinder the children’s chances of learning emotion-regulation strategies over time and decrease their executive functioning. Emotional regulation allows children to “stay calm, focused, and flexible as they face new challenges,” the researchers said.

Young boys and children who were hyperactive, impulsive, and had more intense emotions were more susceptible to emotional dysregulation when parents used screen time to calm them, according to the study. However, the study insights are likely relevant to most families, as screen time has increased across most demographic groups since the beginning of the pandemic.2,3

Signs of increased emotional dysregulation could include rapid shifts between sadness and excitement, a sudden change in mood or feelings, and heightened impulsivity.

Researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed parent and caregiver responses to assess how often they used devices as a calming tool and how dysregulated their 3- to 5-year-old child’s behavior. The study lasted from August 2018 to January 2020 and included 422 parents and 422 children.

This study arrives at the same time as one published by UC San Francisco researchers in the Journal of Adolescent Health that found playing video games and watching videos could lead early adolescents to develop obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).4

“Time spent playing video games is significantly correlated with problematic video game use, including spending a lot of time thinking about playing video games, feeling the need to play video games more and more, and being unable to play video games less despite trying,” researchers said.4

Playing video games and streaming videos were most connected to compulsive behaviors. According to researchers, each additional hour spent on video games increased the risk of developing OCD by 13%, and the risk increased by 11% for each additional hour spent watching videos.

Study participants came from a nationwide sample of 9- to 10-year-old children participating in the longitudinal Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study.

Children initially reported roughly 4 hours of screen time per day. Screen time included watching TV shows, movies, or videos [e.g., YouTube], playing video games, texting, video chatting [e.g., Skype, FaceTime], and social media [e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter]). (The study did not measure screens used for educational purposes.) At a two-year follow-up, 6% of the sample met the diagnostic criteria for OCD, with 4.4% of the children developing new-onset OCD. Children with OCD reported 4.4 hours per day of total screen time.

According to Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., a clinical Psychologist and Clinical Instructor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and ADDitude contributor, “OCD is characterized by obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are intrusive and cause distress and anxiety.

“Compulsions are repetitive physical behaviors (such as hand washing or praying) or mental acts (such as saying words silently, counting, creating images) that a person feels compelled to do to undo or cope with the obsession. The compulsion may have nothing to do with the obsession.”

Researchers did not find any association between television watching and OCD. Researchers noted that traditional television viewing has fewer programming options than does YouTube, which may limit users’ engagement. “Thus, behaviors surrounding traditional television may not have the same potential for the clustering of specific content that may otherwise exacerbate intrusive thoughts or images,” researchers said.

“Future research should examine mechanisms linking these specific screen modalities to OCD development to inform future prevention and intervention efforts,” said the researchers, who cited several limitations of the study, including the difficulty for children to self-report and estimate screen time correctly. “OCD can have severely debilitating and long-lasting effects on adolescent development that extend into adulthood such as social isolation, having fewer relationships than their peers, comorbid mental illnesses, and diminished quality of life….”5, 6

View Article Sources

1Radesky, J.S., Kaciroti, N., Weeks, H.M., Schaller, A., and Miller, A.L. (2022). Longitudinal Associations Between Use of Mobile Devices for Calming and Emotional Reactivity and Executive Functioning in Children Aged 3 to 5 Years. JAMA Pediatr.

2Meherali, S., Punjani, N., Louie-Poon, S., et al. (2021). Mental Health of Children and Adolescents Amidst COVID-19 and Past Pandemics: A Rapid Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 18: 3432.

3Nagata, J.M., Cortez, C.A., Cattle, C.J., et al. (2022). Screen Time Use Among US Adolescents During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. JAMA Pediatr. 176: 94-96.

4Nagata, J.M., Chu, J., Zamora, G., Ganson, K.T., Testa, A., Jackson, D.B., Costello, C.R., Murray, S.B., Baker, F.C. (2022). Screen Time and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Among Children 9–10 Years Old: A Prospective Cohort Study. Journal of Adolescent Health

5Subramaniam, M., Soh, P., Vaingankar, J.A., et al. (2013). Quality of Life in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Impact of the Disorder and of Treatment. CNS Drugs. 27: 367-383.

6Thomsen, P.H. (2000). Obsessions: The Impact and Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Children and Adolescents. J Psychopharmacol. 14: S31-S37.