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A new study looks at different types of screen time, from video games to social media, in order to see how they affect the mental health of teens. Getty Images
  • A new study finds certain kinds of screen time increases risk of depression in teens.
  • The study looked at over 4,000 teens and found those who spent long hours on social media and watching TV were more likely to be depressed.
  • But time spent playing video games wasn’t associated with increased risk of depression.

Texting. Games. Social media. Homework. Reading. YouTube.

There’s a reason that the term “screen time” has become prominent in recent years: We use our phones and computers for literally everything. And while some may be able to use these technologies in modest amounts, many of us spend an excessive amount of time staring at a screen.

And that’s where the problems begin, particularly in more vulnerable age groups like adolescents and children.

Social media has been associated with increased depression in teens, while screen time for younger children has been linked to worse performance on certain kinds of aptitude tests.

But not all forms of screen time are created equal.

Now, a new study from the University of Montreal examined how different forms of screen time affected mental health in a group of teenagers over the course of several years.

The researchers found that for certain specific outcomes, like depression, some forms of screen time had an association, while others did not.

“With our study we really showed that increased social media and television use within a given year predicted more severe symptoms of depression within that same year,” Elroy Boers, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychiatry, told Healthline.

The study involved nearly 4,000 adolescents who self-reported a wide variety of information including their screen time usage to test for a link between screen time and depression over, on average, a four-year period.

Boers adds that the strong sample size and the length of the study make it a compelling addition to the current literature.

To test how different activities affected well-being, the researchers divided screen time into four distinct categories: television, social media, video games, and other activities on the computer.

Increased screen time for the first two categories showed increases in depression, while the latter two did not.

“We attribute these findings to the fact that social media and television, unlike video gaming and functional computer use, contain idealised depictions of fellow peers that have ‘better lives’, such as depictions of exciting life events and perfect bodies,” said Boers.

The findings are in line with other recent studies about the association between social media and depression.

Research published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in December 2018 found a causal link between the two and suggested that limiting social media made people less lonely and less depressed.

Melissa G. Hunt, PhD, the lead author of that paper and the Associate Director of Clinical Training Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, said of the research published this week:

“I’m not surprised they found an association between increasing social media use and increasing depression, and their data do suggest that upward social comparison is a factor in this.”

However, Hunt was critical of the use of self-reported data, which she described as “notoriously faulty,” and suggested that studies on screen time and social media use need better objective measures of time spent on these activities.

Hunt’s own research from last year required participants to have iPhones in order to utilize usage data to track the exact time spent by the user on different apps per day.

The association between social media and depression is prevalent in other studies as well, but the reason why isn’t entirely clear, although psychologists have a pretty good idea.

Boers and his team looked at three different hypotheses to explain their findings.

The first, “displacement,” suggests that any screen time displaces users from other healthier activities such as physical exercise.

“Upward social comparison” happens when people compare themselves to others who appear to be doing better than them; that could mean physically in terms of looks, or wealth.

“Reinforcing spirals” refers to when people seek out information or content consistent with their cognitions. Practically, what it means is that if you’re politically liberal, you’ll probably seek out information online that aligns with your political viewpoint.

And if you’re depressed, well, you could start looking for content that matches how you feel.

Boers work suggests that “upward social comparison” and “reinforcing spirals” are likely drivers of depression related to screen time, but not “displacement.” In fact, it pushes back against the idea of video games as a driver of depression at all.

“The vast majority of kids play the games socially, either physically side by side with friends or joining friends via headset. Skills (both technical and social) are rewarded, just like on a playing field or a Science Olympiad team. It only becomes problematic if that’s the only thing a kid is doing,” said Hunt.

For parents interested in understanding the effects of screen time on their children, there are some general takeaways, but no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to how much time kids should or shouldn’t be spending on their devices.

“Parents should moderate and/or monitor their child’s social media and television use. Especially when a child is vulnerable to mental health issues and/or has already experienced mental health issues in the past,” said Boers.

“Prevent your child from exposing him/herself to idealised content of fellow peers, content that lowers their self-esteem and, in turn, increases the severity of depressive symptoms.”