A study conducted by researchers from the University of Montreal (UdeM) in Canada found significant evidence to suggest that teenagers get more depressed the more time they spend looking at screens – whether that be a phone, computer or TV screen. They say that these negative effects tend to show up within a year of their increased use of screens.
Since the arrival of social media in the early 2000s, it has joined other forms of screen-based entertainment as a potentially harmful preoccupation for teenagers. Some psychologists even believe that increased use of social media may be contributing to soaring rates of depression.
Others, however, have pointed to the lack of evidence, while some even believe that internet and social media usage may have mental health benefits, especially for teenagers who may be struggling with being sociable.
The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, looked at upward or downward shifts in the screen time of teenagers to look for potential indicators of depression. They used this to test three theories on how screen time might drive up the appearance of depressive symptoms: displacement, upward social comparison and reinforcing spirals, the latter two of which were proven to be correct.
Upward social comparison is when people compare themselves to other people they view as better than they are, in an unhealthy way. In healthy amounts, upward social comparison can be used to drive people to improve their current status or level of ability. However, if this social comparison is not geared towards bettering the self, it can cause people to feel very discouraged about their own appearance or abilities.
Reinforcing spirals, based on a media theory of the same name, suggests that people seek out and remember information in media and content that serves to support their previously held beliefs about their own religious, political and lifestyle identities.
The researchers kept themselves updated with around 4,000 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 16 for four years. They found that, with each passing year, the teenagers displayed more depressive symptoms, on average.
While the computer time of the participants remained fairly consistent over the four years, the researchers found that video game usage slightly decreased every year.
For every hour that a teenager spent looking at a screen, either playing video games, watching TV or going through social media, they were more likely to report feeling less confident and more depressed. (Related: Social media is creating young criminals: Violent crimes by children are often sparked by interactions on social media, watchdog group warns.)
The researchers found that spending more time looking at screens made teenagers more likely to compare themselves to others in an unfavorable way.
According to lead author Elroy Boers, a post-doctoral psychiatry researcher at UdeM, increased screen time exposes teenagers to other people who may be better off, such as other adolescents that may look more attractive or live more affluent lifestyles. This, Boers believes, can lead teens towards a regressive spiral. This spiral becomes reinforced as the teens are served even more depressing content that their more susceptible minds will start seeking out.
“The algorithmic features of television viewing and in particular, social media, create and maintain a feedback loop by suggesting similar content to users based on their previous search and selection behavior,” said Boers.
Boers’ study highlights a need for more proactive interventions to reduce the risk of teenagers developing depressive symptoms.
“Early identification of vulnerability to depression gives clinicians and parents a large window of time in which to intervene,” said senior author and UdeM psychiatrist Patricia Conrod. “Regulating teens’ social media and television use might be one way to help young people manage depressed mood or vulnerability to depressive symptoms.”