Screen Time and Depression in Teens

Is There a Connection?

As rates of smartphone use rise among teens, researchers are also seeing an increase in teen depression. Could the two be related? And if so, what can parents do to buffer their kids from the adverse effects of screen technology?

            What the research says. According to the National Institutes of Health, today’s teenager spends roughly five to seven hours a day engaging with friends online, perusing social media, watching YouTube and gaming.

            Psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge, author of iGen, studied trends among children born between 1995 and 2012. Through her groundbreaking research, she discovered that as more smartphones landed in the hands of teens, depression and unhappiness also began to rise.

            Kids today spend about an hour less per day with their friends than teens did in decades past, preferring online interactions. But the more time spent online, the less happy they feel.

            “Eighth graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media sites are 56 percent more likely to be unhappy than those who spend less time,” Twenge writes. “There’s not a single exception: all screen activities are linked to less happiness and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness.”

            How screens affect the body and the brain. Dr. Ram Chettiar, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, Children’s Mercy Kansas City, agrees that children who are heavy users of screen technology are more at risk for mental health issues like anxiety and depression, as well as social and family conflict.

            Too much screen time can also negatively affect a teen’s ability to focus for extended periods of time. And when screens are kept in the bedroom, they can affect sleep quality. The blue lights from electronic devices delay the body’s natural release of melatonin, a neurohormone produced by the pineal gland that makes you sleepy.

            Social media and video gaming are like candy for the brain. The immediate gratification we experience from social media likes or achieving the next level in a video game creates short bursts of dopamine, a feel-good reward chemical in the brain. Those quick hits of rewards flooding the brain keep us going back for more. The more we consume, the more we “may desensitize the brain’s reward system, regulated by dopamine,” Chettiar says.

            A recent study conducted by Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, suggests that even just one hour of screen time a day inhibits curiosity in children and teens, results in lower self-control, less emotional stability and a greater inability to finish tasks.

            What should parents do? While your knee-jerk reaction may be to pull the plug on technology altogether, that’s probably not realistic given a teen’s social culture.

            “Eliminating the smartphone from teen life just ain’t gonna happen,” writes Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology.

            The good news, Graber says, is that Twenge’s data also finds that the happiest teens are those who spend a small amount of time on electronics, not those who spend no time online.

            “Reducing screen time, not eliminating it, seems to be the best recipe for happy teens, and is a more realistic goal,” Graber says.

            Establish ground rules. To encourage healthy online behavior, Chettiar recommends creating ground rules from the beginning. Create a family media plan that outlines your family’s screen rules. For example, you may decide that tech-free zones include the dinner table, your car and social gatherings. You may require that all electronics are turned into a power station outside of your kids’ bedrooms by lights-out each night.

            Create a balance. “Encourage your teenager to be involved in activities or sports. Being involved in school clubs, church groups or community programs can remove the urge to be on the device and foster face-to-face relationships,” Chettiar says. “High electronic engagement seems to be more significant around times of boredom.”

            Take note of your teen’s interests. If your teen loves taking photos and posting on social media platforms like Instagram, find ways to foster that interest in the real world and connect with other budding photographers.           

            “Consider putting him or her in a photography class or attending art shows,” Chettiar suggests.

            Listen to learn. Get curious about the apps, video games and platforms that your kids enjoy.

            “Make an effort to learn about and participate in some of the things your kids are doing online, whether that’s social media, video games, YouTube, etc., ” Chettiar says.

            Play Fortnight with your teen or message her through Snapchat or another favorite app. Maintain an open dialogue with your adolescent by discussing current issues, pop culture and other areas of interest.

            “Part of being a teenager in any generation involves developing a sense of self. This will inevitably lead teenagers to take risks, explore various roles and ideas and occasionally misstep. Forcing a teenager to conform to a parent’s ideal may negatively impact the development of his identity and in the process, fracture trust between the teenager and the parent,” Chettiar says. “Provide a safe space for your teenager to turn to when they have questions or need help, but then—and the hardest step of all—trust your teen to use good judgement, follow the expectations and be responsible for their actions.”

            Warning signs. If you notice your teen is isolating himself, acting secretive or intentionally vague about his online activities, or you notice abrupt changes in his habits or social circle, talk to him without judging or punishing him.

            “This is a time that your teenager may be needing more love and support and often provides an opportunity for the parent to strengthen their relationship with their teenager,” Chettiar says.

            Contact a counselor if you need additional support. As always, if you are concerned about your teen’s safety, immediately contact the police or the emergency department.


Your guidance matters

  • Encourage setting up strong privacy settings.
  • Discuss the importance of not sharing personal information online or meeting someone they’ve met online in person.
  • Explain that it’s okay to unfollow or block individuals/online communities that cause stress.
  • Check phones and electronic devices periodically to encourage safe, positive online behavior.
  • Model healthy tech use. Create limits for yourself and put aside electronics while engaged in face-to-face interactions and projects or tasks.


Christa Melnyk Hines is an internationally published freelance writer. She resides in Olathe with her family, which includes her husband, two digitally charmed adolescent sons and a menagerie of pets.


As always, please consult your health care provider with any questions or concerns.

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