New research provides evidence that some forms of screen time are linked to an increase in anxiety and depression symptoms among adolescents.
“It is very common to talk to our children about the negative consequences of alcohol use, smoking, and unsafe sex. However, nowadays, adolescents spend 6-7 hours in front of a digital screen, exposing themselves to information potentially dangerous for their mental health,” said study author Elroy Boers, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montreal.
“To my knowledge, fewer parents talk to their children about the potential negative consequences of screen time. More awareness is needed.”
The researchers examined data from 3,659 children who were surveyed annually from 7th grade through 10th grade. The teens were asked to self-report time spent in front of digital screens and specify the amount of time spent using social media, television, video games, and computers.
The results, published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, found that a higher than average frequency of social media use, television viewing and computer use over the four-year period predicted more severe symptoms of anxiety.
Another analysis of the same data, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that a higher than average frequency of social media and television viewing predicted more severe symptoms of depression over the four year time frame.
The findings highlight “the negative consequences of screen time for adolescents’ mental health,” Boers told PsyPost.
“Two longitudinal studies have shown a robust effect of screen time on symptoms of depression and anxiety. Thus, parents, pediatricians, medics, and developers of health interventions aiming to reduce or prevent anxiety and depression among adolescents should take screen time into account as one of the triggers of anxiety and depression.”
It is still unclear why some forms of screen time are associated with anxiety and depression, while other forms of screen time are not.
For example, playing video games was not a predictor of either depression or anxiety, which may be because gaming has become more of a social activity. “Compared with their forerunners 15 to 20 years ago, the average video gamer is not socially isolated. It has been shown that more than 70% of gamers play their games with a friend, either physically together or online,” the researchers noted in their study.
The researchers also found some evidence that interacting with media that promoted upward social comparisons was associated with reductions in self-esteem, which in turn was associated with increases in depressive symptoms.
“The most important caveat is that we believe that content is key. However, we did not examine content (yet). I do not believe that the ‘simple’ act of engaging in screen time has negative consequences, but what adolescents expose themselves to while engaging in screen time. Thus, future research should focus on what kind of content triggers anxiety and depression in adolescents,” Boers explained.
The studies, “Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence” and “Temporal Associations of Screen Time and Anxiety Symptoms Among Adolescents“, were authored by Elroy Boers, Mohammad H. Afzali, Nicola Newton, and Patricia Conrod.