Increased Time Watching TV, on Social Media, Promotes Youth Depression, Says Study

Too much screen time with TV and on social media exacerbates the symptoms of depression among adolescents, according to new research findings published in JAMA Pediatrics.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Montreal, CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center in Montreal and the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, found that increasing social media use, TV viewing and computer use by a single hour within a year increased the severity of depression in that year among adolescents. No link was found between video game use and depression.

The findings indicate that adolescent use of social media and television should be regulated to prevent depression and to reduce worsening symptoms over time.

The researchers drew on responses from 3,826 adolescents (with 3,659 participants supplying usable data) to online self-assessments in which adolescents were asked to rank on a scale of zero to four the extent of their depression in seven symptom categories, such as loneliness, sadness and hopelessness.

They were also asked about their screen time each day playing video games, watching television, visiting social media sites and using the computer, excluding video games.

Students at 31 Montreal-area schools completed the assessment and were studied from grade 7 to 11. Data was collected between September 2012 and September 2018.

“We found an association between social media and depression in adolescence,” the researchers wrote.

Repeated exposure to what they termed “idealized images” lowers the self-esteem of adolescents and triggers depression. “Furthermore, heavier users of social media with depression appear to be more negatively affected by their time spent on social media …,” they wrote.

The researchers suggested that further research should be conducted to examine whether social media algorithms affect this process.

When it came to TV, the study found that adolescents who are less prone to depression are more likely to watch television. The research “demonstrated that the tendency to engage in high mean levels of television over four years was associated with less depression,” they wrote. However, “any further” growth in TV use in the same year pushed depression symptoms higher.

“[W]e argue that watching more television over time increases the likelihood of upward social comparison to occur, in turn potentially triggering and enhancing depression,” they wrote.

Computer screen time also appears to be tied to youth depression as well. However, increased time using the computer was positively associated with the belief in one’s ability to perform computer tasks, which may lessen the overall severity of depression, the researchers suggested.

The research findings were published online July 15 in an article entitled “Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence.” 

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.