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Teen’s Attraction to Sad Faces May Portend Depression

Emerging research suggests teenagers who tend to pay more attention to sad faces are more likely to develop depression, especially when stress management skills are less than optimal. Investigators from Binghamton University, State University of New York, developed the study to examine whether attentional biases to emotional stimuli, assessed via eye tracking, serve as a marker of risk for depression for teenagers.

The research was led by graduate student Cope Feurer and professor of psychology Dr. Brandon Gibb in an attempt to discern if being attracted to sad faces could elevate stress in some teens and be a predictor of teen depression.

“Although previous studies from the lab have examined who is most likely to show biased attention to sad faces and whether attention to sad faces is associated with risk for depression, the current study is the first to look at whether these attention biases impact how teenagers respond to stress, both in the lab and in the real world,” said Feurer. Biased attention to sad faces is associated with depression in adults and is hypothesized to increase depression risk specifically in the presence, but not absence, of stress by modulating stress reactivity.

However, few studies have tested this hypothesis, and no studies have examined the relation between attentional biases and stress reactivity during adolescence. This absence of information is present despite evidence that the adolescent developmental window is marked by significant increases in stress and depression risk.

The new study addresses these limitations by examining the impact of adolescents’ sustained attention to facial displays of emotion on individual differences in both mood reactivity to real-world stress, and physiological reactivity to a laboratory-based stressor. Consistent with vulnerability-stress models of attention, greater sustained attention to sad faces was associated with greater depressive reactions to real-world stress.

“If a teenager has a tendency to pay more attention to negative stimuli, then when they experience something stressful they are likely to have a less adaptive response to this stress and show greater increases in depressive symptoms,” said Feurer.

“For example, if two teenagers both have a fight with a friend and one teenager spends more time paying attention to negative stimuli (i.e., sad faces) than the other, then that teenager may show greater increases in depressive symptoms in response to the stressor, potentially because they are paying more attention to the stressor and how the stressor makes them feel.”

The researchers believe that the biological mechanism behind this finding lies in the brain’s ability to control emotional reactivity.

“Basically, if the brain has difficulty controlling how strongly a teenager responds to emotions, this makes it harder for them to look away from negative stimuli and their attention gets ‘stuck,'” said Feurer.

“So, when teenagers who tend to pay more attention to sad faces experience stress, they may respond more strongly to this stress, as they have difficulty disengaging their attention from negative emotions, leaving these teens at increased risk for depression.”

“This is also why we believe that findings were stronger for older than younger adolescents. Specifically, the brain becomes more effective at controlling emotional reactivity as teens get older, so it may be that being able to look away from negative stimuli doesn’t protect against the impact of stress until later adolescence.”

There is increasing research showing that the way teenagers pay attention to emotional information can be modified through intervention, and that changing attention biases can reduce risk for depression. The current study highlights attention toward sad faces as a potential target for intervention, particularly among older teenagers, said Feurer.

The researchers recently submitted a grant that would let them look at how these attention biases change across childhood and adolescence.

“This will help us better understand how this risk factor develops and how it increases risk for depression in youth,” said Gibb. “Hopefully, this will help us to develop interventions to identify risk for these types of biases so that they can be mitigated before they lead to depression.”

The paper appears in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

Source: Binghamton University

Teen’s Attraction to Sad Faces May Portend Depression

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). Teen’s Attraction to Sad Faces May Portend Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 28 Jul 2020 (Originally: 29 Jul 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 28 Jul 2020
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