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Study: Use of Electronic Devices Linked to Teen Depression

November 28, 2017

A new study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science shows a possible correlation between increased symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts in teens who spend more than three hours a day online, on cellphones or playing video games.  Symptoms were particularly prevalent among girls, the survey reports.

The study led by researchers at San Diego State University reviewed surveys from a half a million teens who responded to a series of statements such as “Life often feels meaningless,” or “I feel my life is not very useful.” They found that the number of teens who answered “yes” to three or more questions has increased significantly over the years — 16 percent in 2010 to 22 percent in 2015 — and that teens who spent the most time on their electronic devices were more likely to show signs of depression. According to the study, girls were six times more likely to show symptoms of depression or have suicidal thoughts than boys.

The news isn’t surprising to Natchaug Hospital Associate Medical Director for Ambulatory Services Dr. Paul Weigle, who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry and chairs the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Media Committee.

“The study does confirm what a number of other studies  have told us that not only has the average  amount of time teens are spending online and playing video games increased significantly since the turn of the century,  but also that the  rates of depression have increased concurrently,” Weigle says. “Although the correlation does not prove that increased time online directly causes depression, increased exposure [to video games, cell phones and the internet) is really the biggest change in the lives of children and adolescents during that time period.”

Weigle, who recently lectured on the topic during a meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, says the relationship between too much screen time and depression works both ways.

“It appears that the relationship is bidirectional,” he says. “Those young people who have depression and anxiety are more likely to prefer communicating and socializing online even when compared to their peers. Evidence supports that the more time teens spend online the less time they spend socializing, exercising, participating in school activities, and getting the appropriate amount of sleep.”

Weigle agrees that a three hour per day cut-off for screen time, as outlined in the study, is a reasonable guideline for parents to follow.  He encourages parents to actively monitor their kids’ online activities and place restrictions on when and what they can watch and play. 

“Most kids really do need that kind of guidance.  As parents, we also need to monitor our own screen habits and make sure we’re being good role models because it does have a great effect on our children.  And, we certainly need to educate kids on the importance of a healthy balance and the drawbacks of excessive screen entertainment,” Weigle says.

According to Weigle, here are some signs to look for if you think your child is suffering from depression:

  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Irritability (Teens are more likely to be irritable than sad)
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Low energy
  • Hopeless statements or feelings of helplessness
  • Decline in academic performance

If parents are seeing signs of depression in their child, Weigle says they should contact a primary care provider who can do an assessment and make a referral, or directly consult a qualified mental health provider.

“Depression is unfortunately a common problem for adolescents, and it often causes great distress and impairment, but it’s important for parents to know that there is a solution.  Treatment is both readily available and very effective for those in need,” Weigle says.

For more information on depression treatment and screening options, click here.