Social Media, Not Video Games, Linked To Teen Depression

The use of social media has been linked to an increase in depressive symptoms in teenagers, according to researchers at Montreal's Sainte-Justine Hospital, according to the CBC

In a new study led by University of Montreal psychiatry professor Patricia Conrod, adolescents were studied over a four-year period to investigate the relationship between depression and various forms of screen time. 

Patricia Conrod, left, is a professor of psychiatry at Université de Montréal. She worked on the study with Elroy Boers, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

"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 Conrod. 

The researchers studied the behaviour of over 3,800 young people from 2012 until 2018. They recruited adolescents from 31 Montreal schools and followed their behaviour from Grade 7 until Grade 11.

The teenagers self-reported the number of hours per week that they consumed social media (such as Facebook and Instagram), video games and television.

Conrod and her team found an increase in depressive symptoms when the adolescents were consuming social media and television. -CBC

The study was published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal on Monday. 

Unsurprising to some, the study found that all forms of screen time are bad, but that consuming social media was the most harmful. Conrod and her colleague, Elroy Boers, found that being active on platforms like Instagram - where teens can compare their dismal, boring lives to those of glitzy 'influencers,' cause the most depression. 

"It exposes young people to images that promote upward social comparison and makes them feel bad about themselves," said Conrod. "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 for depression." 

The researchers also observed whether the additional screen time was taking away from things generally known to reduce depression, such as exercise and fun interacting with other human beings, but found no link. 

'A good pastime'

The study suggests that the average gamer is not socially isolated, as over 70% of gamers play with other people online or in person. 

"The findings surprised us," said Boers. "Video gaming makes one more happy. It's a good pastime." 

Dr. Martin Gignac, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Montreal Children's Hospital, said there has been an increase in the number of emergency-room visits at the hospital related to teens having suicidal thoughts and behaviour in recent years.

"I don't think that [social media] is the only reason, but it's one of the risk factors we should monitor," said Gignac, who was not involved with the study.

As online relationships supplant in-person communication, Gignac said it's important that young people learn when posting about their lives online is healthy, and when it can hurt.

He's hoping that schools expand programs teaching kids about healthy online activity, and that learning how to practise good "digital citizenship" eventually becomes a universal part of school curriculum. -CBC

Depression in adolescents is linked to substance abuse, lower self-esteem and poor interpersonal skills. According to Boers, teens are spending six-to-seven hours in front of a digital screen per day

"What we found is quite worrisome and needs further investigation," he said.