We Need More Sleep, Less Screen Time. The Pandemic Is Messing With Both

These two lifestyle factors are 'critical' in reducing depression, a new study has found.

Our screen time is way up and we’re sleeping way less – and we could be making ourselves more susceptible to depression in the process.

A new study found getting a good night’s sleep (seven to nine hours each night) and less screen time offers a protective effect against low mood for people with clinical depression and that same factors also protect those those without any depressive disorder.

The research, led by Western Sydney University, analysed the data of 85,000 people from the UK Biobank. Physical activity and a healthy diet were also associated with less frequent depressed moods – although diet was more likely to be protective in people who didn’t have existing depression, the study found.

Increased screen time and smoking were significantly associated with more frequent depressive moods.

“While people usually know that physical activity is important for mood, we now have additional data showing that adequate sleep and less screen time is also critical to reduce depression,” said lead author Professor Jerome Sarris, from Western Sydney University, who said the study was the first assessment of such a broad range of lifestyle factors that also used such a large dataset.

The study’s results have never felt more relevant, with more people confined to their homes and our screen time reaching an all-time high during lockdown.

This summer, OfCom revealed adults were spending a record number of hours a day online, with twice as many video calls happening, too.

Another survey of 2,000 people by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) in June found more than half of UK adults had spent more time online and on social media (55%) since the first lockdown began, with half saying that they had watched more TV (50%) as well.

Our sleep has also been impacted. While some are sleeping longer hours (a perk of not having to commute, perhaps?), in a recent survey by mattress brand Sleepeezee, 33% of adults reported getting less than the recommended four to six hours of sleep.

On top of that, sleep quality has taken a hit. Wellbeing psychologist Dr Andy Cope analysed data of 50,000 Brits taken from Simba’s sleep and mood tracking app between March 8 and April 25 this year, and noticed the quality of sleep had gradually declined.

A study from Italy revealed a similar pattern. Data from 1,310 people aged 18 to 35 years old, who completed an online survey from March 24-28, revealed many were going to bed later, waking up later and spending more time in bed. They were also reporting lower sleep quality.

The same study found people with depression, anxiety and stress were more likely to have poor sleep quality.

Five ways to help mental wellness and mood

1. Ensure you are getting seven to nine hours of sleep each day.

2. Limit your screen time (especially late in the evening) on computers, smartphones, tablets and televisions outside of working hours.

3. Eat a wholefood diet (lean protein, complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, nuts, sufficient fibre/prebiotic foods, and poly-unsaturated fats), with less processed foods.

4. Limit or avoid tobacco and alcohol consumption.

5. Aim across the week for 2.5 to 5 hours of physical activity of moderate intensity and at least two muscle strengthening sessions per week.

Sleep and depression have a complex relationship. Many people with depression cite problems sleeping, and at the same time, sleep problems can exacerbate depression – so it can be a vicious cycle to break out of.

While the Western Sydney University depression study found a higher frequency of alcohol consumption was associated with less frequent depressed moods in those with depression, researchers said this might be due to people self-medicating with alcohol to manage their mood.