Scientists at the University of Montreal (UdeM) are reporting that excessive amounts of television and social media have a negative impact on the mental health of teenagers. The study reveals that the more time adolescents spent on social media or in front of the television, the more severe their symptoms of depression became within the same year.
The findings also indicate that social media, in particular, may further promote depressive symptoms in those who are already experiencing depression. Internet browsing, video gaming, and other types of computer activities analyzed by the team did not predict depression.
“Our research reveals that increased time spent using some forms of digital media in a given year predicts depressive symptoms within that same year,” said study senior author Dr. Patricia Conrod. “Early identification of vulnerability to depression gives clinicians and parents a large window of time in which to intervene. Regulating teens’ social media and television use might be one way to help young people manage depressed mood or vulnerability to depressive symptoms.”
After testing three theories that may explain the link, the researchers found no evidence to suggest that screen time affected adolescent depression by reducing their involvement in physical activities. On the other hand, they found that exposure to media outlets which promote upward social comparisons was strongly tied to declining self-esteem, which could explain the depressive symptoms.
Study lead author Elroy Boers is post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at UdeM.
“Social media and television are forms of media that frequently expose adolescents to images of others operating in more prosperous situations, such as other adolescents with perfect bodies and a more exciting or rich lifestyle,” said Boers.
“Furthermore, based on reinforcing spirals theory, people seek out and select information congruent with their current state-of-mind. 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.”
“Thus, the more one’s depressive state influences their viewing choices, the more similar content is being suggested and provided, and the more likely one will be continuously exposed to such content, therewith maintaining and enhancing depression.”
The study highlights a need for families to regulate digital screen time in order to prevent and reduce depressive symptoms.
“Many people attribute increasing rates of depression among young people in North America to the recent introduction of mobile digital devices to our society. The study’s findings indicate social media use and television viewing are important predictors of depression in adolescence,” said Dr. Conrod.
“While our results are based on observational research design, the nature of statistical approach that we used to test possible causal effects robustly controlled for any potential common underlying vulnerability to high levels of screen time and depression. Furthermore, the effects could be explained through mediation analyses, which further supports a causal hypothesis.”
“Nevertheless, more research is needed, among which research that includes experimental designs, to confirm that exposure to social media is causing elevated rates of depression in young people.”
The study is published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
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