By Dr. Paul Weigle
Associate Medical Director of Ambulatory Programs
Natchaug Hospital

Just over a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, radically changing our lives and particularly the lives of adolescents. Uncertainty, social isolation and parental distress have adversely affected the well-being of teens.

But one of the most significant changes has been the reduced time in school due to distance learning. Over the past year, most teens have had a lot more free time. Between the lack of commute to and from school, a shortened virtual learning day and fewer extracurricular activities, teens have had an excess of free time.

This newly found free time, combined with unprecedented access to the internet, has resulted in an explosion of time spent on video games such as Fortnite and Roblox, social media sites like TikTok and Instagram and streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix. Between a virtual school day and computer entertainment, teens spend almost every waking moment looking at screens.

This increase in screen time may not seem problematic day-to-day, but it can have long-term effects. In Connecticut, we are seeing a substantial rise in adolescent referrals to psychiatric care centers. Many teens who were successful in school are now falling behind or failing for the first time. We are seeing teens who are spending more time in bed during the day and staying up late, leading to poor sleep quality.

Teens are also not eating regularly, skipping breakfast, snacking more and eating late at night – leading to significant weight gain. Many teens compensate for the lack of in-person socialization by spending more time on social media and online gaming, which are poor substitutes and have led to feelings of loneliness. Social anxiety has been reported by teens when they were expected to return to school or re-engage in in-person social situations.

The quarantine taught us that adolescents, like the rest of us, need a balanced life, with adequate time devoted to sleep, regular meals, in-person socializing, family time, exercise and outdoor activities. Although it may be tempting to allow screen media to take over, parents must be vigilant and maintain limits to safeguard healthy lifestyles in their adolescents, for health and happiness.

In the meantime, parents should be on the lookout for potential signs of depression in their teens. Signs may include:

  • Being more irritable or easily annoyed than usual.
  • Lashing out.
  • Avoiding their friends.
  • Sleeping too much or not sleeping enough.
  • Overeating or not eating enough.
  • Not enjoying things they usually like.
  • Significant decline in grades.

The good news is that the adverse effects of screen time are reversible. Parents can help by increasing the structure in a teen’s day and enforcing regular sleep and wake times. Encouraging no screen media in the bedroom can go a long way in improving a teen’s health and happiness.

Treatment for depression and anxiety is safe and effective. Parents of teens showing such depressive symptoms should consult their child’s pediatrician or seek help from a qualified mental health professional. Natchaug Hospital offers Partial Hospitalization (PHP) and Intensive Outpatient (IOP) group therapy programs that provide teens the opportunity to connect with peers who have similar concerns, and help each other find their way.

Natchaug Hospital provides six treatment programs for adolescents across eastern Connecticut, in Mansfield, Danielson, Norwich, Groton, Old Saybrook and Enfield. For more information, please call 1.800.426.7792 or click here.