What My Screen Time Usage Says About My Mental Health

by Kimberly Zapata
Originally Published: 

Up 27 percent. Down 12 percent. Over three hours. Under two. These are just a few of the daily statistics my iPhone gives me about output, capacity, and productivity. About usage. And while it seems silly to track these numbers — after all, they are just that: numbers — I do. Constantly and diligently. I check my screen time usage religiously. Why? Because excessive screen time use is (usually) the first sign my mental health is on the decline. It is a signal my mania or depression has returned.

Let me explain.

You see, I live with bipolar disorder and have lived with this condition for some time. In fact, I was first diagnosed more than five years ago. And while I experience a plethora of symptoms when I am manic, when I’m depressed, I’m forlorn and despondent. I sleep too much and eat too little; I also struggle to shower, to execute the most basic tasks — and my phone usage also changes.

During depressive episodes, my phone becomes a conduit to zone out or veg out. I scroll endlessly through Facebook and Instagram. Through social media. During manic episodes, my phone enables me. I use it for work, jotting down article excerpts and ideas. I send dozens of emails an hour. There are also texts and phone calls. I communicate rapidly and quickly. Mania is marked by excessive energy, activity, feelings of grandiosity, and racing thoughts. And both phases cause my screen time usage to skyrocket.

I can easily waste four or five hours a day.

But that’s not all: When I am mentally unwell, I use my phone to reach out to others. To feel connected to others. When I am mentally unwell, I use my phone as a distraction, from my mind and myself. I also use it to listen to music and watch TV, two things which help turn my brain off when I am anxious, manic, or depressed.

Of course, there have been numerous studies about the relation (or correlation) between screen time usage and mental health. In fact, a 2018 study found that cell phone and/or tablet use is linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression in teens. It also affects their ability to focus and make friends. Excessive screen time use is associated with lower psychological well-being. But few researchers have analyzed the inverse. Few researchers have analyzed how our mental state impacts our cell and/or tablet use.

The good news is science is catching on — or, should I say, up. According to an article in Time, entitled “Your Phone Knows If You’re Depressed,” a 2015 study found that screen time use can reveal declines in one’s mental state.

“Depressed people… spent an average of 68 minutes using their phones each day, while people without depression only spent about 17 minutes on their phones,” the article reads.

And while “the software didn’t track what people did on their phones — just whether or not they were using it, the authors [of the study] have some ideas about why they saw phone activity rise with depression. ‘One of the things we see when people are depressed is that people tend to start avoiding tasks or things they have to do, particularly when they’re uncomfortable,’ [David] Mohr explains. ‘Using the phone, going in and using an app, is kind of a distraction.’” And that is the case with me.

My phone becomes a respite. An outlet. A diversion from the pain — and my life.

The good news is that when I see these numbers increasing, I can recalibrate. I exercise more and (try) to sleep less. I journal in an effort to get a handle on my thoughts. To better understand my feelings. I reach out to friends and tell them I am not doing well, calling on them for assistance and support. I say the words “I am not okay.” I ask for help. When things are particularly bad, I call my therapist or text her. I schedule additional appointments, when necessary. We talk, candidly and openly, about my struggles, and if I need to, I work with my psychiatrist to adjust my meds. I take an antipsychotic and antidepressant and sometimes my dosage needs to be tweaked.

Is this strategy fool-proof or fail-proof? No. Mindfulness isn’t a cure for mental illness, and knowing I am struggling doesn’t always stop me from slipping into a manic or depressive state. But it does help shorten the duration of said episodes. It helps me focus and feel less crazy and less alone, and it helps me help myself.

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