Social Media and Depression in Kids

A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics, a publication of the American Medical Association, finds a correlation between the amount of time teens spend on social media and TV and the likelihood of depression.

The study

The study followed 3,826 adolescents over four years, from 7th grade through 10th grade. Researchers compared kids who spent more time on screens with those who spent their time in other ways, and they also looked at kids whose amount of screen time changed over the course of the study. For this group, they compared the kids when they used screens less and when they used them more. This study is different from previous research because it looks at both these distinctions.

Screen time was sorted into four categories:

  • social media
  • television
  • video gaming
  • computer use

They tested three hypotheses from earlier studies:

  • Screen time leads to depression because it takes the place of activities like physical play or connections with family members.
  • Depression comes up when teens compare themselves with others, especially idealized images of other people.
  • Depression comes from “reinforcing spirals” — looking at increasing amounts of information that reinforces beliefs and behaviors. For example, kids who watch violent content might look for (or be offered) more violent content which reinforces their view of the world as violent and dangerous.

What did the researchers learn?

Just one hour of added screen time increased test scores on depression significantly. However, the different kinds of screen time had different results. Gaming wasn’t associated with depression at all. Higher levels of computer use were associated with depression, but increasing computer time didn’t increase depression scores. Computer use wasn’t sorted; that is, more time using a computer in research for school wasn’t separated from more time watching YouTube videos.

Watching TV was not correlated with depression — that is, kids who watched more TV were not more likely to be depressed than kids who watched less. However, kids who started watching more TV during the study did show signs of increased depression. The researchers suggest that kids who start watching more TV may be giving up other activities (like connecting with others) or may be comparing themselves with idealized images of teens in TV shows. Teens whose TV intake increased tested lower on self-esteem measures.

Social media use was associated with depression. Increasing time with social media was associated with increased depression and decreased self-esteem.

The take-home

The researchers came to one important conclusion: screen time, especially for TV and social media, should be regulated for teens. That is, teens shouldn’t be allowed unlimited time with social media or with TV.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limits on screen time for kids. The American Heart Association suggest an upper limit of two hours per day for teens. The average American kid currently stares at a screen for seven hours a day, so cutting back that much can be a challenge.

Here are some ideas that could work for your family:

  • Forbid electronic devices for the hour before bedtime. This should help kids sleep better. Put your money where your mouth is and follow the rule yourself. You may be surprised at how much better you sleep, too.
  • Set up a family phone charging station in a central location. Have everyone in the family plug in their phones at dinner time. You’ll get a better dinner table conversation and a natural stopping point for social media during the day.
  • Establish a post-dinner routine that involves the whole family. Clean up together and head out for a family bike ride or walk.
  • Make a set of social media and screen time rules together, as a family. Listen to kids’ ideas and practice negotiating. Some kids might be happy with no-screen time… as long as they get 15 minutes in the morning to make sure they won’t be out of the loop when they get on the school bus. Others will give up TV for video game time. Teens are more likely to follow rules when they have input.
  • Keep electronics out of bedrooms. Set up a library where computers live, have the family TV in the family room, or outfit the game room with a gaming system. Pay attention to the content your kids’ access and join in when you can.

The Pew Research Center surveyed teens to find out how they felt about social media. In general, the kids were positive. However, 45% said they felt “overwhelmed” by social media drama. Nearly as many said they felt pressure to post things that made them look good, or that would get lots of Likes. 52% say they’ve had to unfriend someone because of bullying. It might be a hard sell to begin with, but your kids might appreciate a chance to step back from social media.