Screen Time Linked To Mental Health Issues In Teens, Study Suggests

By Kelly Burch 11/17/17

Forty-eight percent of teens who spent five or more hours per day on their devices reported at least one suicide-related outcome, like feeling hopeless.

teenage girl checking her phone while in bed

The rates of suicidal thoughts and depression among teenagers have increased greatly in recent years and technology may be to blame, according to a new study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Researchers found that the suicide rate for teen girls increased 65% between 2010 and 2015. The number of teen girls experiencing depression rose 58%, and the number of teen girls feeling hopeless or planning suicide (so-called "suicide-related outcomes") increased 12% during that time. 

"When I first saw these sudden increases in mental health issues, I wasn't sure what was causing them," Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and lead author of the study, said in a press release

Using data from national, anonymous surveys of 500,000 teens, Twenge also looked at what respondents did in their free time. 

"These same surveys ask teens how they spend their leisure time, and between 2010 and 2015, teens increasingly spent more time with screens and less time on other activities,” she said. “That was by far the largest change in their lives during this five-year period, and it's not a good formula for mental health.”

Researchers found a statistically significant link between the amount of time teens spent in front of a screen and their feelings of depression. Forty-eight percent of teens who spent five or more hours per day on their devices reported at least one suicide-related outcome, such as feeling hopeless. Of teens who spent less than an hour on their devices, only 28% reported a suicide-related outcome. 

"These increases in mental health issues among teens are very alarming," Twenge said. "Teens are telling us they are struggling, and we need to take that very seriously.”

Having in-person social interactions, doing homework and exercising were all related to a lower likelihood of reporting suicide-related outcomes, researchers found. Twenge said that limiting screen time to an hour or two per day would be perfectly safe for most teens.

The researchers can’t say for certain that increased access to technology caused more depression, but the link is very strong. "Although we can't say for sure that the growing use of smartphones caused the increase in mental health issues, that was by far the biggest change in teens' lives between 2010 and 2015," Twenge said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.