More Screen Time Tied to Depression, Suicidal Behavior in Teens

A new study suggests that greater screen time — whether in the form of computers, cell phones, or tablets — may have contributed to a spike in depression and suicide-related behaviors and thoughts among American teens, particularly girls, between 2010 and 2015.

The study, led by a researcher at San Diego State University (SDSU), sheds new light on the need for parents to monitor how much time their children are spending in front of media screens.

“These increases in mental health issues among teens are very alarming,” said study leader Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology. “Teens are telling us they are struggling, and we need to take that very seriously.”

Twenge, along with SDSU graduate student Gabrielle Martin and colleagues Drs. Thomas Joiner and Megan Rogers at Florida State University, analyzed questionnaire data from more than 500,000 U.S. teens from two anonymous, nationally representative surveys that have been conducted since 1991. They also studied suicide statistics kept by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The findings show that the suicide rate for girls aged 13-18 increased by 65 percent between 2010 and 2015, and the number of girls experiencing suicide-related outcomes — feeling hopeless, thinking about suicide, planning for suicide, or attempting suicide — increased by 12 percent. The number of female teens reporting symptoms of severe depression increased by 58 percent.

“When I first saw these sudden increases in mental health issues, I wasn’t sure what was causing them,” said Twenge. “But these same surveys ask teens how they spend their leisure time, and between 2010 and 2015, teens increasingly spent more time with screens and less time on other activities. That was by far the largest change in their lives during this five-year period, and it’s not a good formula for mental health.”

The team looked back at the data to see if there was a statistical relationship between screen-time and depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes.

They discovered that 48 percent of teens who spent five or more hours per day on electronic devices reported at least one suicide-related outcome, compared to only 28 percent of those who spent less than an hour a day on devices. Depressive symptoms were more common in teens who spent a lot of time on their devices as well.

The findings add to previous evidence showing that spending more time on social media is linked to unhappiness.

In contrast, the results show that spending time away from these devices and engaging in in-person social interaction, sports and exercise, doing homework, attending religious services, etc., is associated with fewer depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes.

Although economic struggles are often thought to be linked to depression and suicide, the U.S. economy was improving between 2010 and 2015, so it is unlikely to be the primary driver of these increases, Twenge noted.

“Although we can’t say for sure that the growing use of smartphones caused the increase in mental health issues, that was by far the biggest change in teens’ lives between 2010 and 2015,” she said.

The study findings are published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Source: San Diego State University