A new Canadian study has drawn a link between social media screen time and depression in teenagers.
Researchers studied the behavioural habits of 3,800 students, grades 7-10, from 31 Montreal schools beginning in 2012.
The study – carried out over four years by researchers at the Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal – was published Monday in the American peer-reviewed journal JAMA Pediatric.
Researchers called it the first study of its kind that presents a “developmental analysis of variations in depression and various types of screen time”.
Screen time was measured by asking students how much time they spent on social media sites such as Facebook, playing video games, watching television shows or movies, and on the computer.
“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,” said Patricia Conrod, the study’s team leader and University of Montreal psychiatry professor.
While social media and television both increased depression, social media screen time was the most harmful.
Researchers concluded the depressive symptoms were the result of the young people comparing themselves to the images they are unable to attain on sites such as Instagram.
“It exposes young people to images that promote upward social comparison and makes them feel bad about themselves,” Conrod said.
“These sort of echo chambers – these reinforcing spirals – also continually expose them to things that promote or reinforce their depression, and that’s why it’s particularly toxic depression.”
On average, researchers found teens spend six to seven hours a day looking at a digital screen.
Unlike social media and TV, the researchers found that video games did not lead to depression because gamers tend not to play in isolation – they often play online or in-person with others.
“The findings surprised us,” said Elroy Boers, a postdoctoral research fellow at the hospital and co-author of the study.
“Video gaming makes one more happy. It’s a good pastime.”
According to the chief child and adolescent psychiatrist at Montreal’s Children’s Hospital, there has been a noticeable increase in emergency room visits by teens over the past few years who have exhibited suicidal thoughts.
“I don’t think that [social media] is the only reason, but it is one of the risk factors we should monitor,” said Dr Martin Gignac.
The study concluded social media use by teens should be regulated to prevent “the development of depression” and to “reduce exacerbation of existing symptoms over time”.
Boers said he believed the results could be used by healthcare professionals to improve and enhance the treatment of depression in young people.