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News: Are Smartphones Making Teens More Depressed Than Ever Before?

News: Are Smartphones Making Teens More Depressed Than Ever Before?

Researchers suggest time caps on the digital world.

Too many hours texting, sharing memes, scrolling through social media feeds and watching cat or dog videos on smartphones may be hazardous to your teenager’s mental health, new research suggests.

Teenage girls, especially, appear vulnerable to feelings of sadness and hopelessness after prolonged daily use on these electronic devices, sometimes harboring suicidal thoughts.

Researchers tie this disturbing trend, in part, to a rise in the popularity of cell phones, with ownership among teens rising from about 23 percent in 2012 to 73 percent just three years later in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington D.C.

4 key research findings
The overall results of the study appeared in the November issue of the journal, Clinical Psychological Science. Co-authors Jean Twenge, PhD, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, and Thomas Joiner, PhD, director of Florida State University’s psychology clinic, sifted through 16 years of national self-injury data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with data from several ongoing teen surveys, seeking clues to the sudden surge in depression, suicide attempts and suicide among the nation’s teens, beginning in 2012. Here are some of the most notable observations:

  • There are generational differences: The rise paralleled the dominance of smartphone use, especially in the iGen generation of teens (born after 1995), who use these devices far more often than their Millennial (born between 1981 and 1997) and Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) predecessors at the same age.
  • Suicide rates are rising, especially in girls: Although both teen boys and teen girls saw a rise in mental health issues, the biggest jump occurred in girls, with CDC’s five-year snapshot showing a 65 percent increase in suicide rates for girls aged 13 to 18 between 2010 and 2015. The numbers of teen girls reporting feelings of hopelessness and suicidal contemplation also rose, about 12 percent during this time.
  • Depression rates are rising, too: During these same years, data from the two teen polls, the Monitoring the Future Survey and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey, found a 58 percent increase in the numbers of teen girls reporting depression.

The researchers cautioned against singling out smartphone use as the lone culprit behind these developments, however. Other known risk factors for depression and suicide include genetic predisposition, cyberbullying, family environment, trauma or often, not enough sleep.

But, “the timing of this uptick in mental health issues, beginning around 2011 to 2012, is also worth noting,” they warn, and supports the idea of a definite link to smartphones, perhaps acting as the tipping point for vulnerable youth.

So, how much screen time is too much?
Not surprisingly, socially outgoing teens fare better than their less socially adept peers who spend far longer hours plugged into a digital world. In general, however, researchers found that suicide-related outcomes were 66 percent more likely in those teens who used their devices for five or more hours a day.

Advice to parents
Their counsel to parents: it’s best to limit your teens’ screen-time exposure to two hours a day, or less, and make sure to watch for persistent changes in mood or sleeping and eating patterns. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends similar time caps on all types of digital media, including smartphones, for teenagers and especially younger children.

The AAP further suggests that parents limit their own time on electronic devices, acting as “media mentors” for their families by not only designating media-free times together, but also setting aside rooms in the home that are media-free.

“Even though the media landscape is constantly changing, some of the same parenting rules still apply,” said lead author of the "Children and Adolescents and Digital Media Technical Report," said Yolanda Reid Chassiaskos, MD, in a prepared statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2016. “Parents play an important role in helping children and teens navigate the media environment, just as they help them learn how to behave offline.”

Medically reviewed in January 2018.

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