Study suggests too much time on social media can hurt teens' mental health

A girl uses her smart phone as apps are shown on an iPad in Mississauga, Ont., on November 13, 2017. A Montreal study suggests that spending too much time on social media or watching television is linked to symptoms of depression among teens. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

MONTREAL - Spending too much time on social media or watching television is linked to increased symptoms of depression among teens, a new study suggests.

Researchers conducted a four-year study of more than 3,800 adolescents between Grades 7 and 11 in the Montreal area.

The findings, published in JAMA Pediatrics on Monday, indicate that the longer young people spent on social media or watching TV, their risk of depression increased.

Elroy Boers, who co-authored the study, said the results suggest that media portraying an "idealized" image of adolescence are more likely to hurt teens' self-esteem.

These harms appear to be most potent on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, where teens are more likely to compare themselves to other people with "perfect lives" — and feel worse about their own, he said.

These negative feelings are exacerbated by algorithms designed to feed users with content similar to what they've already consumed, said Boers, a post-doctoral researcher at the Universite de Montreal's psychiatry department.

"The algorithm basically creates a never-ending loop. You search for content that is in line with your state of mind," he said. "Eventually, the algorithm remembers that, and you get fed it all the time, and that's how you actually trigger and maintain depression."

But Boers said not all forms of digital media are bad for young people's mental health, contrary to theories positing that all screen time detracts from so-called real world experiences, such as exercising and hanging out with friends.

Boers was surprised to find there were no significant ties between time playing video games and depression.

Research suggests that playing video games has increasingly become a social activity, either in person or online, he said, and is more likely to facilitate relationships with "like-minded people" than scrolling through social media.

"Although they follow you on Instagram or they are your friends on Facebook, they might not be your actual friends," Boers said.

For parents, Boers said the best way to avert the detrimental impacts of digital media on teens' mental health is to monitor not only how much time they spend in front of screens, but the content they are consuming.

"If one is being exposed to the same content over and over and over again, that spiral or loop maintains itself," said Boers. "That circle needs to be ended, and that can potentially be done by parents who exert more control."

For the Montreal study, participants were asked each year to fill out an anonymous web-based survey answering questions about their screen time and mental health.

-- By Adina Bresge in Toronto

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