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Depression

Screen Time and the Mental Health of Children

A small but significant association with electronic media use.

By the Brain & Behavior Staff

Researchers studying the results of questionnaires filled out by thousands of children ages 9 to 11 and their parents have found associations between electronic media use and mental health, although they say the magnitude of the impact they measured is statistically small.

This result, the researchers explain, means that when considering the many factors that impact mental health in children, “screen time” probably ought to be taken into consideration, and may be important in some cases in which a child has mental health issues.

Contrary to past studies that have found an association (of uncertain magnitude) between electronic media use and anxiety and depression in young people, the new study, led by BBRF Scientific Council member Deanna Barch, Ph.D., of Washington University, St. Louis, finds the relationship to hold in depressed youths, but not as strongly in those with anxiety.

Although the new analysis initially seemed to confirm an association with both anxiety and depression, the association with anxiety mostly “dropped out” once the researchers statistically accounted for co-morbidity—the fact that many individuals with anxiety are also depressed. Overall, “electronic media use was more strongly associated with depression than anxiety,” the researchers reported in the journal Child Psychiatry & Human Development.

Barch and her collaborator, Payton Fors, are careful to point out that the direction of causality in their study remains unclear. It is still not possible to say for sure whether electronic media use causes or contributes to young people becoming depressed (or anxious), or if it is an activity that depressed (or anxious) young people turn to as a result of emotional issues.

Since nearly all U.S. teens have access to a smartphone and a computer, and many millions have access to video games and tablets, the question of whether “screen time” is affecting their mental health has attracted considerable interest in the research community.

Dr. Barch and Ms. Fors saw an opportunity to learn what they could from a recently assembled cohort of over 11,800 children aged 9 to 11 who have been recruited to the 21-site Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, funded by National Institutes of Mental Health. Since ABCD, in which Dr. Barch is a co-principal investigator, will continue to follow the cohort through the end of adolescence, the current study can be considered a first analysis that may acquire more significance as the same participants are analyzed at later points in their development. The current study of electronic media use is but one of many studies that will emerge from the ABCD dataset, which is expected to support a comprehensive view of brain structure and function as it changes over childhood and adolescence.

Dr. Barch and Ms. Fors studied a subset of the total sample that included 4,139 children. Their findings were based on questionnaires filled out by study participants and their parents/guardians as part of their recruitment. Both children and parents filled out questionnaires about how many hours per week the child used various kinds of electronic media; parents also filled out a detailed questionnaire about their children’s behavior. The latter formed the basis for the team’s judgments about whether children in the study were depressed and/or anxious.

“When looking at specific types of electronic media use,” the researchers wrote, “we found that video gaming and video chatting had the most robust associations with anxiety. In contrast, video-watching had the most robust associations with depression.” Weekend electronic media use tended to predict anxiety in boys, but not girls, they also noted.

In speculating about the nature of the associations found in the study, the researchers said they “could suggest that children with depression are using electronic media to cope with negative feelings. Alternatively, or in addition, a child’s depression could interfere with them engaging in more social activities, with electronic media use potentially becoming an activity to occupy their time.” In the latter case, it would amount to a form of avoidance, they said.

The researchers added that their results “suggest that modification of electronic media use might be a useful part of interventions designed to target child depression,” although in view of the small “effect size” they noted in the overall sample, that would not likely be a general approach for children with depressed mood. The case for modifying electronic media use would be strongest, they noted, if it could be shown that it was a causal factor in depression and not a behavior that results from having depression.

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