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JAMA Pediatrics Study: Increased Social Media Use Linked to Rise in Teen Depression

Imran Javed

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A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) this Monday confirms what many teen psychologists have long suspected: there is a strong correlation between social media use and teenage depression.

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Over the past few years, teen depression and suicide rates have been significantly on the rise. In fact, recent estimates indicate that teenagers are nearly 40 percent more likely to commit suicide than they were just one decade ago.

In response to these developments, there have been multiple theories about why these rates have increased. Though social media use represents just one cause of these changing figures, the results from JAMA’s new study are truly profound.

“Based on the upward social comparison, it may be that repeated exposure to idealized images lowers adolescents’ self-esteem, triggers depression, and enhances depression over time,” the report claims, eventually going on to say, “Furthermore, the heavier users of social media with depression appear to be more negatively affected by their time spent on social media, potentially by the nature of the information they select.”

In other words, not only does social media likely trigger the onset of depression in some teenagers—intense social media usage also makes already existing instances of teen depression even worse.

What is teen depression?

Depression, which is shorthand for major depressive disorder, is described by the Mayo Clinic as “a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest.” The definition then explains, “it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems.”

Depression is clinically different than “moodiness” or ordinary sadness, which are both often found among teens that are psychologically healthy. Depression is a debilitating mental health condition that, when left unaddressed, can create problems with school, relationships, and motivation, and even lead to suicide.

Teens who are depressed will often lose interest in things they once enjoyed. They will often experience sleeping and eating issues and develop an irrationally pessimistic worldview. Depression is a spectrum disorder that presents itself differently among different individuals. According to Johns Hopkins, depression develops just about equally across demographics, social classes, and living environments (urban versus rural). It is more likely to occur among young people and is also more likely to develop among girls.

Why has teen depression been increasing?

A recent Johns Hopkins report on depression states, “The odds of adolescents suffering from clinical depression grew by 37 percent between 2005 and 2014.” The report estimates that roughly 3 million individuals between ages 12 and 17 experience at least one depressive episode per year. It also claims that depression-related patterns of self-harm have also been on the rise.

There are quite a few reasons why teen depression rates have been increasing. Overwhelming global challenges, such as climate change, the war on terror, and increased income inequality have all been cited as concerns among teens, who represent the first generation of Americans expected to be less wealthy than their parents.

Furthermore, while the percent of teens experimenting with drugs and alcohol has actually been decreasing, those who do abuse substances do so more often and more intensely than older generations.

But among all of the possible causes of increased teen depression, JAMA’s new study pinpoints that excessive screen time and social media usage is a problem unique to this generation. The report, which took place in Canada over six years, tracked the correlation between teen depression rates and different variations of “screen time” such as social media, television, and videogames.

While the study, like others on the subject, has its fair share of limitations (particularly when it comes to isolating variables), the results were still statistically significant. The study tested three different hypotheses trying to prove a link between screen time and depression: the displacement hypothesis, upward social comparison hypothesis, and the “reinforcing spiral” hypothesis. Each of these hypotheses were supported by strongly correlated data.

Should I limit my teenager’s social media usage?

In response to the JAMA study, many parents are likely wondering whether it is appropriate to limit their teenager’s screen time or social media use. This question, frankly, is one that psychologists are still having a difficult time answering. While social media use may increase the likelihood of developing depression, creating strict usage limits may have certain complications.

Most studies suggest that once a teenager uses social media for more than 3 hours per day, the likelihood of developing depression genuinely begins to increase. If social media is used for more than five hours per day, the rates rise even higher.

If your teen is experiencing depression, but only uses social media for small amounts of time each day, the depression is likely linked to a deeper underlying issue. If you are unsure where “the line” exists—which will vary, depending on your teen’s specific situation—consider consulting a child psychologist or speaking with your teen’s pediatrician.

What should I do if my teen is suffering from depression?

If you suspect that your teen is currently suffering from depression, the first thing you should do is get a formal diagnosis. Many of the symptoms of depression are correlated with other mental health conditions as well, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, and substance abuse disorders.

The course of treatment that is right for your teen will depend on their personality, their situation, and the severity of their condition. In some cases, a doctor may recommend decreased use or even total abstinence from social media.

If the depression is linked to substance abuse disorders, then a residential treatment center (RTS) may be the most appropriate treatment option. There, your teen can remove themselves from distractions (such as drugs and social media) and focus on making recovery their foremost priority.

Many parents worry about taking control, due to their fear of their children hating them or becoming even more depressed. “It is imperative that parents get over the fear of taking charge over kids’ social media use,” states teen psychologist Meg Meeker, MD, “In fact, we must get over the fear of limiting any screen time.” Even small actions can have a major impact on your teen’s long-term wellbeing.

Conclusion

JAMA’s study, released Monday (July 15) suggests that there is a very strong correlation between teen depression and social media use. Other studies, conducted around the world, have also reached very similar conclusions. While understanding the causes of teen depression can be incredibly complex, the link between teen depression and social media use should not be overlooked by their parents.

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