Screen Time Is Linked to Depression in Teens

More reason to encourage kids to unplug.

There’s an epidemic of excess screen time among kids today. Now two new studies are shedding light on how that habit is linked to mental health issues and the factors that might lead kids to spend more time in front of screens in the first place.

The first study, led by Dr. Asad Khan from the University of Queensland, Australia, surveyed 898 teenagers in Bangladesh, India about their physical habits and mental health. The findings, published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity, show that teens who exercised for less than one hour a day and used screens for more than two hours per day were twice as likely to report symptoms of depression compared to teens who got at least an hour of daily movement.

“The double burden of prolonged screen time and low physical activity is a major public health concern for many developing countries,” Khan said in this press release about the study, adding that this is a global problem that presents a “variety of health and psychosocial problems” in developed nations, too.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

It’s important to note that the study didn’t prove causality between increased screen time and depression, meaning the researchers can’t say for sure that screen-time directly causes mental health issues. But it does underscore how advances in technology and increasing urbanization (which Khan points out is changing our physical spaces, leaving less open area for exercise) are linked to unhealthy side effects.

The second study, published in the European Journal of Sport Science, analyzed the physical activity, sedentary time and socioeconomic status of 486 Finnish children between 6 and 8 years old. The study notes that Finnish children today spend an average of 6 to 8 hours of their awake time doing sedentary activities, both screen-based (like watching television, playing video games or using their phones) and non-screen based, like reading, writing or playing music.

Screen-based activities were the most common activity for both boys and girls, specifically watching television. In total, 11 percent of girls looked at screens for at least two hours every weekday, jumping to 35 percent on weekends. Nineteen percent of boys spent at least two hours engaged in screen-based activities on weekdays, which increased to 58 percent over the weekend. For a variety of reasons, boys tend to spend more time playing computer and console games, while girls (for similarly nuanced reasons) spend more time engaging in screen-free activities like drawing, reading or writing, the study found.

The study also notes an important connection between family income, physical activity and screen time. The study found that “watching television was highest in boys whose parents had a vocational school degree or less. Using mobile phone and playing mobile games increased with decreasing parental education in boys,” according to the press release. There are various ways wealth, screen usage and activity are related, but it’s possible that teens in higher income families may have more opportunities to engage in organized sports, like soccer or gymnastics, the study explains, leading to less time in front of screens.

In an age where we’re all spending too much time engaging with screens, these findings are an important reminder to unplug more often. When it comes to kids, it’s a good idea to encourage them to press pause on their many screen-based activities and get moving instead.

Read more about the studies here and here.