Using data from two nationally representative surveys of students between 8th and 12th grade, a team of researchers from San Diego State University and Florida State University set out to determine the extent to which depressive symptoms and suicidality had shifted between 2010 and 2015 among adolescents, and to examine potential explanations for these shifts. Alarmingly, in their article released this month in the Clinical Psychological Science journal, the researchers detected notable leaps in depressive symptoms (33%), suicide-related outcomes (23%), and suicide rates (31%) in adolescents across this five-year span.
Increases in characteristics associated with depression were found to be concurrent with the rapid escalation of smartphone ownership among teens (which surpassed the 50% threshold in 2012, and reached 92% by 2015). Further, upsurges in depressive symptoms, as well as suicidal ideation and behaviors, were disproportionately high among teen females. Implications of this study may be critical in considering distinctions between the unique needs and worldviews of the iGen (a term for the recent/current generation of teens born after 1995 coined by one of the study’s athors) as compared to past generations of adolescents.
“Examining how adolescents spend their time— including both screen and nonscreen activities—may be especially important, as iGen adolescents in the 2010s spent more time on electronic communication and less time on in-person interaction than their Millennial and Generation X (GenX) predecessors at the same age,” the authors write.
“It is worth remembering that humans’ neural architecture evolved under conditions of close, mostly continuous facetoface contact with others and that a decrease in or removal of a system’s key inputs may risk destabilization of the system.”
Some have hypothesized that increased academic pressure, residual implications of the economic recession, continuing changes in family structure, emerging substance abuse patterns, and childhood obesity may contribute to observed increases in depression. However, screen time and social media use were of particular interest to the authors of this study.
While the researchers (Jean Twenge, Thomas Joiner, Megan Rogers, and Gabrielle Martin) were able to establish counterarguments against some of the leading theories (e.g., post-2010 improvements in economic opportunity, and a lack of research to support the assertion that academic expectations of teens have increased within the window examined in the current study), questions regarding the role of emerging technologies remained.
To investigate the relationship between adolescent mental health outcomes and screen time, authors drew their sample from the preexisting Monitoring the Future (MtF) and Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) databases for a total of 506,820 observations.
Factors assessed through mean-comparison over time and correlational analyses included depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, electronic device use patterns, social media use patterns, internet news-following patterns, TV watching patterns, time spent on homework, in-person social interaction patterns, print media consumption patterns, sports and exercise participation patterns, religious behavior patterns, time spent in a paid employment setting, demographic moderators and controls, and economic factors. Researchers established their own system for “exploring cultural change at the group level.”
Despite challenges associated with attributing large-scale patterns in mental health to any one cultural or economic shift, correlational analyses can point to relationships between trends and potential causal factors. When psychometrically sound measures reflecting mental health characteristics, such as indicators for depression (i.e., perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness) are reflected in a nationally representative sample, and a variable thought to be associated with these trends increases shifts in tandem with these indicators for depression, links may be drawn.
Findings indicate that, between 2009/2010 and 2015, the percentage of adolescents exhibiting high levels of depressive symptoms climbed from 16.13% to 21.48%. This jump is almost entirely accounted for in increased depressive symptoms and suicidality in female students. Twenge and team found that higher reported screen time was closely related to depressive symptoms and suicidality in teens, while students engaging in activities that required in-person social interaction were less likely to demonstrate these characteristics.
Contrary to past research, time spent on homework was negatively associated with depressive symptoms, although this is not to say that anxiety surrounding anticipation of homework and associated challenges does not factor into the experience of depression for many students. What’s more, the authors add:
“All activities associated with higher depressive symptoms or suiciderelated outcomes involved screens, and all activities associated with lower depressive symptoms or suiciderelated outcomes did not involve screens. In terms of relative risk, adolescents using electronic devices 3 or more hours a day were 34% more likely to have at least one suiciderelated 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.”
There is value in leveraging emerging technologies in the process of increasing the availability of online communities and networks, particularly for individuals limited in mobility and flexibility for in-person interaction. Recent research has even explored the efficacy of smartphone-based interventions in treating depression. Additionally, the possibility exists that some yet-to-be-identified factor will eventually link more directly to increased depressive symptoms and suicidality than technology use in adolescence. However, perhaps reduced screen time and perusal of the web could benefit students who are consistently attached to their computers and phones.
Twenge and colleagues results are staggering and suggest that while teen social networks may be actively expanding in a virtual context, substituting in-person opportunities for interaction with time spent online may be taking a toll on quality of interaction. These patterns may also contribute to the experience of isolation in adolescence, with implications across ecological levels relevant in adolescence.
Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. N. (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, 1-15. doi:10.1177/2167702617723376 (Link)