By Mac Molli
A study published by Jama Pediatrics on Monday looked into the question, what is the association of various types of screen time and depression in adolescence? Patricia Conrod, a clinical psychologist and professor of Psychiatry at the University of Montreal, lead a team of researchers trying to find the answer to this question. Their objective was to repeatedly measure the association between screen time and depression to test three explanatory hypotheses: displacement, upward social comparison, and reinforcing spirals. They used data from a randomized clinical trial assessing the 4-year efficacy of a personality-targeted drug and alcohol prevention intervention.
The study tested screen time and depression throughout four year, using an annual survey in a sample of adolescents who entered 7th grade in 31 schools located in Greater Montreal. Data was collected between September of 2012 every year until September of 2018, analysis began soon after and concluded that December.
The independent variables included social media, television, video gaming, and computer use and the outcome being tested was depression measured using the Brief Symptoms Inventory. Additionally, exercise and self-esteem were assessed to test displacement and upward social comparison hypothesis. A total of 3826 adolescents were included, 53% were male and the average age of those studied was 12.7 years old. The study found that, in general: depression levels increase yearly, for every hour increase on social media and watching television showed an increase in depression, and the increase in video game time showed to direct relationship to depression among adolescents. According to CBC, Conrod stated, "What we found over and over was that the effects of social media were much larger than any of the other effects for the other types of digital screen time." The study found time-varying associations between social media, television, and depression which appeared to be more explained by upward social comparison and reinforcing spirals hypothesis rather than the displacement hypothesis.
Conrod and her team found increase symptoms of depression linked to activity on platforms like Instagram where many teens compare their lives to influencers whose pages only show the glamorous side of their life in order to gain followers. Conrod says, "It exposes young people to images that promote upward social comparison and makes them feel bad about themselves… these reinforcing spirals also continually expose them to things that promote or reinforce their depression, and that's why it's particularly toxic for depression." The finding of the time spent playing video games did not contribute to depressive symptoms was surprising to Elroy Boers, a postdoctoral researcher at the Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal, "The findings surprised us. Video gaming makes one more happy. It's a good pastime."
Dr. Martin Gignac is the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Montreal Children's Hospital, he claims an increase in emergency-room visits at the hospital related to teens having suicidal thoughts and behavior has increased in recent years. "I don't think that [social media] is the only reason, but it's one of the risk factors we should monitor." He believes it is important for adolescents to learn when posting about their lives online is health and when it’s hurtful. He encourages schools to expand programs relating to teaching kids about healthy online activity and help practice proper digital citizenship.