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Exploring the relationship between screens and substance abuse

Posted by Mandy Donnison
on 15 Jun 2023

What’s included?

  1. Introduction
  2. How does screen use affect the brain?
  3. What is the impact of too much screen time?
  4. Can screen use lead to substance abuse?
  5. How are screens and substance addiction related?
  6. How can Delamere help with screen addiction and substance abuse?
  7. References

Is reliance on technology simply part of modern life or is our need for screen time setting us up for problems with depression, anxiety and substance abuse? 

Tablets, consoles or mobile phones, we’re a population of screen lovers. Pretty much anything you can think of can now be done online, from GP appointments to reading a book. It seems there’s not a moment of our day that doesn’t involve a digital interface. And this has only worsened since the pandemic. 

With the average person spending 6 hours 58 minutes looking at a screen each day, there’s real concern about what this may be doing to our mental and physical health. Here’s a look at some of the research around the relationship between screens and substance abuse, particularly among young people, and how to get help. 


How does screen use affect the brain? 

Social media, messaging apps and online games are all highly addictive. The reason? They all offer the user a sense of pleasure and reward. Screens create a chain reaction in the brain that is very similar to substance abuse with alcohol or drugs.

Screen time and substance abuse both flood the brain with dopamine. This makes you feel good. Over time, your body craves more of those feel-good emotions, and you’re compelled to repeat the behaviour, sometimes to the point of addiction. 

The part of the brain that is affected by screen time is known as the frontal cortex – the outer layer of the brain that processes information. Studies show that screen time can cause physical changes to the brain that are similar to those caused by cocaine. This is especially damaging to young people as their brains are still developing. 

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study showed that children having more than 7 hours of screen time per day had a thinner cortex, affecting their ability to think and concentrate. According to the National Institutes of Health, children younger than 11 who spent more than two hours a day on screen activities also scored lower on thinking and language tests (1). 

Excessive use of smartphones and internet addiction also show a reduction in brain volume in areas of the brain associated with impulse control and behaviour regulation. Which is why some experts have drawn comparisons between screen addiction and substance addiction. 

Need help for alcohol or drug addiction? Speak to Delamere

What is the impact of too much screen time?

Spending too long staring at a screen is harmful to your health. Whether you’re glued to a computer screen for your day job or spend your evenings playing video games, the impact of screen time is felt by everyone. Too much screen time can result in:

  • Sleep problems
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular diseases
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Poor stress regulation
  • Breakdown in relationships

In a recent Ofcom report delving into the screen lives of 16 to 24-year-olds, this age group were more likely to use online communication sites or apps on a regular basis. Worryingly, it found that 9 out of 10 young people use social media, messaging, video-sharing and live streaming more than adults. 

Children are especially susceptible to becoming addicted to their screens and so it’s worth looking out for common signs. People who are addicted to alcohol or drugs, or have other behavioural disorders, show similar symptoms. Typically, the need to keep repeating a particular action despite it having negative consequences on their work or family life. 

A person who is addicted to screens or substances will:

  • Have inability to stop or control cravings
  • Show a lack of interest in other activities
  • Be preoccupied or obsessed 
  • Feel anxious without their fix
  • Lie about the extent of use
  • Develop relationship problems 

Can screen use lead to substance abuse?

Like anything that gives you pleasure, overuse can lead to addiction. Many people who suffer with behavioural disorders that involve screen use, such as internet addiction, shopping, gaming and gambling addiction, also suffer with alcohol or drug addiction. But it’s hard to know which feeds which. People may turn to substances to cope with other negative behaviours. On the flip side, substance abuse may lead to irrational acts which manifest in another addiction. 

There is evidence however that adolescents who spend a lot of time on screens may develop substance addiction. Anhedonia is a condition which results from having too much of a good thing. Essentially, when young people repeatedly gain pleasure from screen time, they find it hard to feel pleasure from other activities. This may result in them seeking out recreational drugs or alcohol to plug the gap (2). 

One study of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 found heavy screen use was linked with depression, anxiety and risky substance abuse. Experts believe promoting healthy screen habits could help reduce the potential for substance abuse in young people (3). 

How are screens and substance addiction related?

We know that the effects on the brain from screens and substance addiction are similar. These structural changes could make someone more prone to developing a dependence on alcohol or drugs as they are compelled to chase the ‘high’ of screen time.  Being obsessed with screen use also tends to mean isolation, which can lead to feelings of loneliness, fuelling substance abuse. 

Mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, have been linked to gaming addiction. Both of which are risk factors for substance abuse. Engaging in heavy screen use could also be associated with stress, another precursor to alcohol and drug addiction. For instance, a high-pressured role may naturally involve lots of screen time as well as a dependence on alcohol or prescription drugs. 

The relationship between screens and substance abuse can also be circumstantial. During the pandemic, when social isolation was enforced, screen time went through the roof. More time spent in front of the TV and excessive computer use led to a rise in alcohol and sugar intake with a reported 95% increase in the desire to drink. Ultimately, the relationship between screens and substance abuse is complex. The important thing if you’re suffering is to reach out for help.

How can Delamere help with screen addiction and substance abuse?

Delamere’s holistic therapists treat a wide variety of conditions at our purpose-built wellness retreat in Cheshire. We can help with screen-based behavioural addictions, such as gambling and gaming addiction, as well as problems with substance abuse. 

If you’re suffering with alcohol or drug addiction, we can provide a full clinical detox in safe and comfortable surroundings to help you manage unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Everyone’s different so we will develop a care plan to suit your individual needs, based on a balance of somatic healing practices and evidence-based therapeutic techniques. 

Psychotherapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is especially effective in treating smartphone and internet addiction. This type of talking therapy helps you to unravel the reasons for your problems in one-to-one and group counselling sessions. We can also provide any medication you may need to manage anxiety or depression.

At our forest retreat you can shut yourself off from the world and reset the clock, emerging happy, confident and free from addictive behaviours. 

If you are concerned about screen or substance addiction, call us confidentially to speak to a member of the team today. Contact Delamere


1. Trinh, MH et al. Trajectory and covariates of children’s screen media time. JAMA Pediatrics. 2019. 

2. Christodoulou G, Majmundar A, Chou CP, Pentz MA. Anhedonia, screen time, and substance use in early adolescents: A longitudinal mediation analysis. J Adolesc. 2020 Jan;78:24-32. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2019.11.007. Epub 2019 Dec 5. PMID: 31812941; PMCI. 

3. Leigh-Anne Cioffredi, Jody Kamon, Win Turner, Effects of depression, anxiety and screen use on adolescent substance use, Preventive Medicine Reports, Volume 22, 2021, 101362, ISSN 2211-3355. 

About the author: Mandy Donnison

Mandy manages our admin, HR and finance functions here at Delamere. Find out more about Mandy on our team page.

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