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Study: More Screen Time Linked to Increased Teen Depression

Is social media harming our children?

It’s a question researchers, educators, and parents alike have been wrestling with since our cultural obsession with digital devices began.

Recent months have seen growing concern over the detrimental effects of technology on childhood development–even some Silicon Valley executives have taken the unexpected step of speaking out against the potential negative effects of their own products.

Now, new research places real data behind a possible connection between social media and technology use–and teen depression.

A recent study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science finds a possible link between the amount of time teenagers spend on social media and digital devices and increased feelings of depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.

Do trends signal a connection?

The research explores two national surveys, both of which found that symptoms of teen depression and self-harm–along with suicide rates–all increased between 2010 and 2015, especially among females.

In that same time period, researchers found, teenagers spent more time participating in “new media screen activities”–think social media, computer games, text messaging, and other online activities.

The study’s authors examined other potential triggers for teenage depression, including academic pressure and economic changes, but found no correlation.

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More screen time, more symptoms

While the study’s authors caution that more research still needs to be conducted, the data at least hints at a connection between the amount of time students spend in front of screens and the likelihood of experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts.

As the study’s lead author, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, tells NPR:

“One hour, maybe two hours [a day], doesn’t increase risk all that much. But once you get to three hours–and especially four and then, really five hours and beyond–that’s where there’s much more significant risk of suicide attempts, thinking about suicide and major depression.”

Conversely, students who reported participating in more real-world, in-person social interactions were less likely to report symptoms of depression.

Staying cautious

As technology becomes further integrated into K-12 classrooms, school leaders should work to better understand the potential relationship between student overuse of digital tools and teen depression.

Given that social media has become the primary means of communication for Generation Z, school leaders should learn to identify signs of self-harm and intervene when necessary, such as providing anonymous channels to report potential risks, engaging parents in important conversations about their children’s technology use, and developing digital citizenship programs for students.

Technology has the power to transform learning. But the potential harm it can cause developing students may just be starting to reveal itself.

How does your school or district strike a balance between student screen time and real-world interactions? Do you have strategies to mitigate any potential harmful effects of student social media use? Tell us in the comments.