Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition in which a person experiences uncontrollable, upsetting thoughts called “obsessions” coupled with the compulsion to engage in certain activities, such as hand-washing or counting, to help them control or cope with these obsessions. There is not one exact cause of OCD; instead, there are several risk factors that make a person more likely to develop OCD. These include genetics, differences in brain structure, and environmental factors like trauma. Perhaps surprisingly, emerging research suggests that screen time might just be one of the environmental factors linked with OCD.
Taking a Look at the Research
Concerned by pandemic-era increases in both screen time use and mental health problems in youth, researchers writing for a March 2023 publication of the Journal of Adolescent Health assessed the relationship between screen time and OCD in a diverse sample of 9 and 10-year-old children in the U.S.
The researchers surveyed children regarding the amount of time they spent each day on typical screen time activities, including watching TV, watching videos on YouTube, video chatting, texting, playing video games, and engaging in social media. Two years later, researchers used a standardized diagnostic tool for mental health disorders to detect the development of OCD among study participants. Then, they calculated the relationship between screen time and the later development of OCD.
Study results revealed the following:
- Each additional hour per day spent playing video games was associated with a 15% increased chance of developing OCD by the follow-up point two years later.
- Each additional hour spent watching YouTube videos increased OCD risk by 11%.
- Each additional hour of total screen time was associated with a 5% increase in OCD risk.
- Video chatting, texting, social media use, and watching TV/movies did not significantly influence the risk of developing OCD at the two-year follow up point.
Conclusions of the Study
So, do these study results mean that screen time causes OCD? Not exactly. While there was an increased risk of OCD among those who watched YouTube videos or played video games, it’s important to keep in mind that some forms of screen time did not significantly increase OCD risk. It’s also important to consider that additional research is needed to confirm this finding, and to determine if screen time is problematic for older age groups as well.
Study authors aren’t entirely sure of the underlying reason behind the screen time and OCD overlap, but they hypothesized that feelings of distress and aggression arising from video games could lead to compulsive use, in which youth get stuck in a cycle of using video games to cope. They further concluded that compulsive viewing of YouTube videos can lead to repeated exposure to the same type of content, including content which reinforced fears or anxieties.
Cutting out all screen time might not be necessary, but for children and teens who are at risk of OCD, or who show early signs of the disorder, it can be helpful to limit screen time, especially the use of video games and YouTube videos. Scheduling regular breaks and encouraging engagement in other hobbies can also be helpful.
Other Research on the Effects of OCD
The study mentioned above is one of the first to directly explore the relationship between screen time and OCD, but it isn’t the only study of its type. A separate study conducted with Swiss adolescents found that the use of screens for homeschooling actually reduced the likelihood of mental health problems, including OCD, while video game playing reduced the likelihood of depression and OCD. In this study, social media was the only form of screen time linked to worsened mental health.
While these results differ from the study in the U.S., there are several potential explanations for this discrepancy. First, participants in the Swiss study were slightly older. Second, study authors speculated that social media was linked to worsened mental health in their study because of the effects of negative comparisons. That is to say, teens may compare themselves to others on social media and experience worsened mental health if they feel inferior. Furthermore, study authors concluded that more time spent watching TV may reflect greater amounts of quality time spent with family, which could actually improve mental health.
The bottom line is that the research on the effects of screen time is somewhat mixed. There is some evidence that screen time, particularly when it involves playing video games or watching Internet videos, can increase the risk of OCD. If you or your teen spends excessive amounts of time on screens, it could very well be taking a negative toll on their mental health.
On the other hand, quality screen time, such as that devoted to enjoying a show with family or using screens to learn, may be beneficial. As with most things in life, moderation is probably the best option. When screen time becomes excessive and begins to interfere with other areas of life, such as relationships, work, or school, it’s probably time to take a step back and make some changes.
Signs of OCD
If you’re worried that screen time is causing or exacerbating OCD symptoms in yourself or a loved one, it may be time to reach out for professional intervention. OCD is often treated with medication and/or talk therapy. Some signs it is time to reach out for help include:
- Experiencing obsessive thoughts or urges that cause distress or anxiety (ie: fear of germs or taboo thoughts related to sex)
- Feeling the need to engage in compulsive behaviors, such as cleaning, organizing, or hand washing in order to cope with obsessive thoughts
- Being unable to control obsessions and compulsions
- Engaging in obsessions and compulsions for at least one hour a day
- Being unable to function in important life areas, such as at work or school, because of the amount of time devoted to obsessions and compulsions
Therapy and medication are often beneficial for those who live with symptoms of OCD. If you do not experience adequate symptom relief with these treatment methods, you may benefit from transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This non-invasive treatment method uses a device placed against the forehead to deliver small pulses to areas of the brain linked to mood regulation, and it’s FDA-approved for treating OCD.
Pulse TMS provides this service in the Los Angeles area. Contact us today to determine if you’re a candidate for TMS.