Screen time and depression in adolescence

New study in JAMA Pediatrics shows an association of screen time and symptoms of depression in adolescents.

“They shouln’t be looking at their iPhones all the time. It can´t be good for them.”, I sometimes catch myself thinking when I watch kids hunched over a screen, sitting besides each other, each seamingly hypnotized by the continuous flow of blue light, only to then feel like a sur gubbe, as we say in Sweden. Sur gubbe translates “old grumpy man”. No, I don’t want to be a sur gubbe, of course not! I want to be a modern, cool and likable adult. So, let the kids keep their iPhones and tablets, that´s their way of communicating and expressing themselves these days. And by the way, who am I to throw the first digital stone, while blogging and tweeting and instagramming myself, and getting stuck on youtube maybe a bit too often.

Well, it turns out that my inner gubbe may not be too wrong after all: A new cohort study following 3826 adolescents over time has found a longitudinal association of screen time and depressive symptoms. And indeed, social media as well as TV time was significantly associated with an increase in depressive symtpoms over time. The authors conclude:

“Use of social media and television in adolescents may enhance symptoms of depression.” Boers et al, 2019, JAMA Pediatrics

To clarify the causes of this, the researchers looked into two possible explanations: screen time displaces healthy activities such as exercise (displacement theory), and screen time leads to comparison with other, more lucky, good looking, more successful peers and thus deflates self-esteem (upward social comparison theory). Indeed, the more screen time on social media and TV the kids had, the worse their self-esteem was. Exercise was not correlated with screen time. Thus, simplyfied, it appears that what is going on is the following: screen time (using social media or watching TV) > upward social comparison > worse self-esteem > depressive symptoms

“We found an association between social media and depression in adolescence. Based on the upward social comparison, it may be that repeated exposure to idealized images lowers adolescents’ self-esteem, triggers depression, and enhances depression over time.” Boers et al, 2019, JAMA Pediatrics

I am not happy that my inner gubbe is right about the kids and screens. At least video gaming turned out to not be associated with depression, maybe because modern games are social in their nature and encourage real interaction between people and also trigger positive feelings of achievement and mastery. But, I would have preferred if screen time was harmless and enjoyable, instead of dragging kids’ mood down, right in the midst of a developmental phase that is challinging in itself even without the social pressures that are magnified by Instagram & Co.

These results remind us of the important responsibility that parents, teachers, developers, tech companies and mental health care professionals as well as young people themselves have. We need to take care of our kids and another, and use our screens wisely. Helping somebody to put down the screen for a moment isn´t being a gubbe. It is caring. As the authors put it:

“This study indicated that adolescents’ social media and television use should be regulated to prevent the development of depression and to reduce exacerbation of existing symptoms over time.” Boers et al, 2019, JAMA Pediatrics

Read the full study here:

Boers E, Afzali MH, Newton N, Conrod P. Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence. JAMA Pediatr. Published online July 15, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

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