Exposure to social media and television are associated with increased depression in adolescence and should be regulated to prevent development or worsening of symptoms, according to results from a study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Researchers conducted a secondary analysis using data from a randomized clinical trial to repeatedly measure the link between screen time and depression by focusing on 3 media effect theories (displacement, upward social comparison, and reinforcing spirals). Independent variables were social media, television, video gaming, and computer use. Depression was the main outcome, which was compared with exercise and self-esteem.

Over the 4 years of analysis, 3826 adolescents (47% girls; average age, 12.7 years) were included, and depression symptoms increased from an average of 4.29 points in the first year to an average of 5.45 points in the fourth year.

Each increased hour of social media use was associated with an increase in depressive symptoms for between-person associations (0.64-unit increase). Results were similar for computer use (0.69-unit increase).

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Within-person associations suggested that an additional hour increase was associated with a further 0.41-unit and 0.18-unit increase for social media and television, respectively.

In addition, there were significant between-person and within-person associations between screen time and exercise and self-esteem that backed the upward social comparison but not the displacement hypothesis. Similarly, between-person and within-person associations involving social media and self-esteem supported the reinforcing spirals hypothesis.

“[I]t remains unclear which types of social media, types/genres of television, and content are associated with depression,” the authors wrote. “To obtain a better understanding of the association between screen time and depression, we suggest that future research not only makes a distinction between the types of screen time, but also within.”

Reference

Boers E, Afzali MH, Newton N, Conrod P. Association of screen time and depression in adolescence [published online July 15, 2019]. JAMA Pediatr. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.1759