Ever since the world was plunged into the digital age, much has been made about the effect of “screen time” on the mental health of teenagers. However, according to new research, that debate is more complex than it first appears.
While overindulging in social media and television was shown to be linked to significant increases in depressive symptoms among teens, video gaming and computer use were found to have no association with negative mental health.
In other words: video games, OK. Social media, bad.
These findings come from a comprehensive new study by the University of Montreal and are reported in JAMA Pediatrics. The researchers gathered 3,826 adolescents – 47 percent of whom were girls – entering seventh grade in 31 schools across the Greater Montreal area. Over the course of four years, the team tracked their digital media use and seven symptoms of depression, including loneliness, sadness, and hopelessness.
Of all the forms of digital media, spending an above-average amount of time on social media was found to be the most harmful. The study demonstrated that if teens reported increases in social media use, as well as television viewing, their depression symptoms increased over the same year. On the other hand, time spent playing video games showed virtually no association with depression.
The study authors proposed three hypotheses that could explain this trend and proceeded to further investigate them. First, there was “Upward Social Comparison”, the idea that social media can harm people’s self-esteem as they are bombarded with highlight reels of other people’s lives. Second, there was “Reinforcing Spirals", which suggests people seek out information that’s consistent with their own views, creating an “echo chamber” effect. There was also the hypothesis of “Displacement”, which suggests screen time affects mental well-being as it stops teens from partaking in healthier activities, such as playing sports or being outdoors.
Further digging suggested that Upward Social Comparison and Reinforcing Spirals play a significant role in the development of depressive symptoms. However, Displacement had little impact.
“Social media and television are forms of media that frequently expose adolescents to images of others operating in more prosperous situations, such as other adolescents with perfect bodies and a more exciting or rich lifestyle,” lead author Elroy Boers, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Montreal's Department of Psychiatry, said in a statement.
“Furthermore, based on reinforcing spirals theory, people seek out and select information congruent with their current state-of-mind. The algorithmic features of television viewing and in particular, social media, create and maintain a feedback loop by suggesting similar content to users based on their previous search and selection behaviour. Thus, the more one's depressive state influences their viewing choices, the more similar content is being suggested and provided, and the more likely one will be continuously exposed to such content, therewith maintaining and enhancing depression.”