New Research Shows Screen Time Is Not Directly Increasing Depression or Anxiety in Teenagers

A new study seeking to establish a correlation between the time spent on social media and depression and anxiety in teenagers is causing ripples among both researchers and parents.

Previously it was widely believed that a lot of time spent on social media had an adverse effect on teens’ mental health, increasing the likelihood of developing issues such as depression or anxiety. However, the findings from this new study debunk this belief and show that increased social media time doesn’t directly increase depression or anxiety in teenagers.

Highlights from the Study

It’s no secret that the amount of time teens spend online has increased in the last decade. So much so that parents everywhere began to worry about the effect it had on teens. With 95% of teenagers having access to smartphones and 45% of them reporting being online almost constantly, logging as much as 2.6 hours daily on social media, it seems that parents’ worries were justified- or were they?

It’s against this background that Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University, sought to understand the relationship between time spent on social media and depression and anxiety in developing teens. The 8-year-study published in Computers in Human Behavior involved 500 youth aged between 13 and 20.

These teens and young adults completed a questionnaire once a year over the 8 year period of the study where they were asked how much time they spent on different social media platforms. Their anxiety levels and depressive symptoms were then checked and analyzed to see if there was a correlation between the two variables.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that time spent on social media wasn’t directly responsible for increasing either anxiety or depression in teens. If teens spent more time on social media, they didn’t end up more depressed or anxious. Also, decreasing social media time didn’t guarantee lower levels of teen depression or anxiety. Two teens of the same age could spend the same amount of time on social media and still score differently on depressive symptoms and anxiety levels.

What Does This Information Mean for Parents of Teens?

The study by Sarah Coyne opens up an interesting perspective for parents of teens to consider. The researchers suggest that how teens use social media platforms is more impactful than just the amount of time they spend online.

So as a parent, what can you do with this information?

Here are some suggestions:

Lay off nagging your teen about screen time.

The study quoted above shows that screen time isn’t the problem. Instead of constantly nagging your teens or putting arbitrary restrictions on their screen time, maybe you should challenge how they put that time to use. Encourage them to be more intentional in how they use their screen time, e.g. to learn something new or look for certain information instead of just logging in because they’re bored.

Stop demonizing technology.

Your teens have likely grown up with computers, smartphones, and other screens. They probably can’t remember or imagine life without them. It’s natural for you to struggle with their reliance on tech. However, by asking meaningful questions, you can help shape your teen’s thoughts about technology and help them make good decisions about using tech on their own.

Get a new perspective on mental health and factors influencing it.

Mental health is complex and you can’t blame disorders like anxiety or depression on one stressor alone. There are multiple risk factors that determine mental health outcomes in adolescents including their genes and environment. As a parent, you have to minimize your teen’s exposure to some of these risk factors, learn the symptoms of mental health disorders to watch out for in your teen as well as where to go for help if necessary.

Open up a dialogue with your teen about how they use social media. 

Instead of asking your teen to avoid social media completely, teach them to minimize the bad while making the most of its good aspects. The key is to have a responsible and balanced approach towards social media, putting healthy limits around its use and learning how to actively engage and connect with others on these platforms instead of being a passive user.

While increased screen time may have been proven not to lead to teen anxiety or depression, parents should still encourage their teens to find a healthy balance when it comes to social media use and to also prioritize their off-screen time. 

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