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expert reaction to a study on screen time and depression in adolescents

Research, published in JAMA Paediatrics, reports an association between screen time and an increase in symptoms of depression. 

 

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ child and adolescent faculty, said:

“This paper is one of the most comprehensive pieces of research to date looking at how different types of technology can have an impact on young people’s mental health. By looking at just under 4,000 young people’s use of four different types of media over a four-year period it gives us an insight into the relationship between mental health and screen time.

“This study suggests that spending more time on social media is associated with an increase in depressive symptoms. One reason why this may be is that comparing your life on social media to the ‘perfect lives’ of others could be having a bad effect on your mental health.

“But the paper also found not all screen time had negative consequences for mental well-being, as computer time and gaming did not have any effect on depression. More research is needed to better understand the relationship between screens and mental health.

“Social media companies must help fund this independent research and they should also offer more support to vulnerable young people.

“We welcome the government’s proposal for a regulator and duty of care for social media platforms and the need for technology to develop better ways of protecting and helping young people.”

 

Dr Gemma Lewis, Research Associate in Psychiatric Epidemiology, University College London (UCL), said:

“The good points of this study are that it uses a large sample of over 3800 adolescents who were followed for five years from around age 12 to 17. This is an important time for the development of depression as we know depression starts to increase in adolescents, particularly girls, from around age 13.

“However, there are some limitations to this study. The adolescents were originally selected for another study which was testing an intervention to prevent substance abuse, this means the individuals were chosen if they were at high-risk of substance use based on an assessment of their personality characteristics. We know that many of the personality traits associated with substance abuse could also be associated with depression and therefore these adolescents are likely to have a higher risk of mental health problems than the general population of adolescents. The sample is therefore unlikely to be representative of adolescents as a whole (in Canada or worldwide). There are also several possible alternative explanations for the association that the study does not account for, for example the adolescent’s family or peer relationships.

“It is unclear how the study has dealt with the issue of correlation vs causation. It may be the case the adolescents who already have depression/depressive symptoms are more likely to use social media and also more likely to use it in a negative way. For this reason, the study does not allow us to conclude that social media use causes depression. Other recent large studies in this area have found limited evidence or very small effects of social media use on well-being in teenagers, and also highlight that teenagers’ well-being in the first place affects how they use social media1.

“We need more high-quality evidence in addition to this study before we can conclude that adolescents’ social media and television use should be regulated to prevent depression.”

1.https://www.understandingsociety.ac.uk/2019/06/12/new-study-social-media-may-not-harm-teenagers%E2%80%99-well-being

 

Dr Michael Bloomfield, Excellence Fellow, Head of Translational Psychiatry Research Group and Consultant Psychiatrist, University College London (UCL), said:

 “Lots of the existing evidence on the relationship between screen time and mental health is based on cross-sectional research which means that it is difficult to separate cause and effect – it’s a bit like the chicken and egg analogy.  One way that causation can be addressed is by following people over time, which is what this study did. 

“This study found that television and social media use were associated with increased risk of depression. However, even with this type of study it is possible that the relationship isn’t causative – for example, it may be that if a young person is going to become depressed that could make them more likely to have more screen time. The authors have also attempted to look at what factors might be potentially explaining association between screen-time and depression. However, this study did not look at the content of what young people were actually seeing online and on TV – so I think it’s too early to say with much certainty what might be causing this, if indeed the relationship is causative. Also, because depression can be caused by lots of things, accounting for all the potential influencing factors can be difficult and not all of these have been accounted for in this study.  Nonetheless, more research is needed to see whether there is a causal relationship between screen time and depression in young people. If there is, we need to know how this is happening and how to prevent depression in young people.

“Young peoples’ mental health is really important because adolescence is a time when our brains and our sense of self are developing. Therefore, having depression as a young person can have potentially serious implications for someone’s psychological and academic development which can have knock-on effects for mental health into adulthood.”

 

* ‘Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence’ by Boers et al. was published in JAMA Pediatrics at 16:00 UK time on Monday 15th July 2019. 

DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.1759

 

Declared interests

Dr Michael Bloomfield: “None”

None others received.

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