Depression worsening among girls

It is tempting, but too simplistic, to blame social media use
Martin Lux, flickr.com, Public Domain
Martin Lux, flickr.com, Public Domain

Good news – adolescents’ alcohol use has fallen to the lowest point in 25 years. Teen pregnancies have also been trending downward and high school graduation rates have reached a record high in the United States. Based on these key metrics it seems that US kids today are outperforming past cohorts and living healthier lives. Maybe “the kids are all right”?

Despite these promising trends, many adults remain unconvinced that teens today are thriving.  They may be right. Major depression has risen among adolescent girls from 13% in 2005 to 17% in 2014 in the US and suicides have just surpassed homicides as the second leading cause of death – due in large part to a 56 percent increase in suicides among teen girls.

Social media use has quickly emerged as the leading candidate to explain the depression rise, with headlines that read “Depression and Anxiety Among Teenage Girls Soars Amid Pressures From Social Media.” At first glance, this reaction is not surprising. Smartphones are constantly in the hands of teens (and especially of girls). Their usage has gone up alongside the rise in depression over the last decade and kids who are bullied online report more symptoms of depression. There is a pressing need to understand the role of social media in adolescents’ lives. But, are social media and time spent online really to blame for this new mental health crisis?

Like many things with adolescents,  the factors causing the rise in depression are likely complicated. Unfortunately, with kids and technology there is a tendency to accept simple solutions. As a psychologist who captures adolescents’ symptoms via their phones each day, I am very interested in how online experiences are linked with mental health.

However, over time I have become less worried about whether teens’ constant connectivity is ruining their lives and increasingly worried about adults’ willingness to accept digital device usage as the leading (or only) cause of most of their problems.

Depression is a serious mental health problem which carries significant costs for the individual and for society. If social media use is contributing, even a small amount, to the rise in this costly disorder among young girls, then we should have rigorous studies testing this link. We would not accept the current state of evidence — two things increasing together over time — to make treatment decisions for childhood cancer or other serious health conditions. So, why are we so willing to blame technology in the absence of strong evidence in this case?

“Why are we so willing to blame technology in the absence of strong evidence in this case?”

It is true that adolescents are spending an unprecedented amount of time on their mobile phones. It is also the case historically that teens who spent the most time online reported more symptoms of depression and anxiety. But, much of this research was completed over a decade ago when only a small minority of kids were online interacting in chat rooms with strangers versus today when the majority of kids are online connecting with friends and family.

My graduate student Madeleine George and I conducted a study testing whether contemporary adolescents’ high digital technology usage is linked with same-day depressive symptoms and behavioral problems. Adolescents were surveyed three times a day on their mobile phones for 30 days. From these 150 adolescents we captured  4300 surveys and discovered that, contrary to “high online user” teens of the 1990s and early 2000s, contemporary adolescent “high online users” reported fewer depression and anxiety symptoms on high digital technology usage days.

Our study was not perfect – it was conducted with a small sample of adolescents already at risk for mental health problems. We surveyed them multiple times a day, but this is still only correlational data. Still, among these vulnerable youth we find that young adolescents reported fewer depressive symptoms on days that they sent more text messages and spent more time online.

“Stronger tests and evidence-based answers are sorely needed to guide policy and parenting in the digital age.”

It is important to note that not all of our findings supported positive effects.  On days when teens were on their devices a lot – both in relation to their own average amount of use and the average use of their peers – they were more likely to experience difficulty with inattention and conduct problems. High digital technology usage in early adolescence also predicted increases in self-regulation problems over time.

The story here is not simple and our data by no means offer the definitive word on the relationship between mental health and digital technology use among teens. But concluding that social media is to blame for the problems plaguing youth requires more than simply watching mobile phone use and cases of depression move upwards together. Stronger tests and and evidence-based answers are sorely needed to guide policy and parenting in the digital age.

Along the way, we should also check whether teens’ constant connectivity is responsible for their declining alcohol use, fewer pregnancies, and higher graduation rates. Those lines are moving together also.

“Concurrent and Subsequent Associations between Daily Digital Technology Use and High-Risk Adolescents’ Mental Health Symptoms,” Madeleine J. George, Michael A. Russell, Joy R. Piontak and Candice L. Odgers. Child Development, May 3, 2017. DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12819