Between 2010 and 2015, researchers conducted large national surveys and observed a 33% increase in symptoms of depression among U.S. teens, from every background. In addition, suicide attempts among teens increased 23%, and the number suicides among teens increased 31%. After analyzing the data, the researchers observed that the generation of teens born after 1995 is much more likely to experience mental-health issues as compared to their millennial predecessors. The possibility of this rise in depression may be traced back to a major change in the lives of teens': the advent of the smartphone (Twenge, Joiner, Rogers & Martin, 2017).
All Signs Point to the Screen
According to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership breached 75% by 2016. (Smith, 2017). More interestingly, in 2012, smartphone ownership crossed the 50% threshold, right when teen depression and suicide began to increase.
Furthermore, the researchers observed a direct relationship between electronic device use and high depressive symptoms, compared to adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities were less likely. In terms of relative risk, adolescents using electronic devices 3 or more hours a day were 34% more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome than those using devices 2 or fewer hours a day, and adolescents using social media sites every day were 13% more likely to report high levels of depressive symptoms than those using social media less often. Among those who used electronic devices 5 or more hours a day, 48% had at least one suicide-related outcome. Thus, adolescents using devices 5 or more hours a day (vs. 1 hour) were 66% more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome.
Of course, it’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online. But three other studies show that is unlikely (at least when viewed through social media use) (Kross et al., 2013; Shakya & Christakis, 2017; Tromholt, 2016).
The argument that depression might cause people to spend more time online also doesn’t explain why depression increased so suddenly after 2012. Under that scenario, more teens became depressed for an unknown reason and then started buying smartphones.
Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone
A recent poll indicates that 50% of teenagers feel addicted to their mobile devices (Commonsensemedia.org, 2017). Could this be due to the hit of dopamine received by the smartphone user?
A Solution: Face to Face Interaction
Researchers have observed that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).
Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide (Joiner, 2009). Researchers discovered teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed.
The link between smartphone use and depression isn't completely definitive, however, given the possible consequences of depression and suicide, the downside to limiting screen time — say, to two hours a day or less — is minimal.
Baumeister, R. and Leary, M. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), pp.497-529. https://doi.org/10.1037//0033-2909.117.3.497
Commonsensemedia.org. (2017). Dealing with Devices: The Parent-Teen Dynamic | Common Sense Media. [online] Available at: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/technology-addiction-concern-controversy-and-finding-balance-infographic [Accessed 17 Dec. 2017].
Joiner, T. (2009). The Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicidal Behavior: Current Empirical Status. [online] http://www.apa.org. Available at: http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2009/06/sci-brief.aspx [Accessed 17 Dec. 2017].
Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D. S., Lin, N., . . . Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook use predicts declines in subjective wellbeing in young adults. PLOS One , 8 , e69841. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0069841
Shakya, H. B., & Christakis, N. A. (2017). Association of Facebook use with compromised wellbeing: A longitudinal study. American Journal of Epidemiology , 185 (3), 203–211. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kww189
Smith, A. (2017). Record shares of Americans now own smartphones, have home broadband. [online] Pew Research Center. Available at: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/12/evolution-of-technology/ [Accessed 17 Dec. 2017].
Tromholt, M. (2016). The Facebook experiment: Quitting Facebook leads to higher levels of wellbeing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking , 19 , 661–666. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2016.0259
Twenge, J. (2017). Teenage depression and suicide are way up — and so is smartphone use. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/teenage-depression-and-suicide-are-way-up--and-so-is-smartphone-use/2017/11/17/624641ea-ca13-11e7-8321-481fd63f174d_story.html?utm_term=.67c97f868d0b [Accessed 17 Dec. 2017].
Twenge, J., Joiner, T., Rogers, M. and Martin, G. (2017). Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science, p.216770261772337. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702617723376
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