Social media linked to rise in teenage depression as shows off 'perfect lives' of wealthier peers, study suggests

Laura Donnelly
Researchers suggests that social media could induce feelings of inadequacy - PA 

Increased use of social media linked to growth in teenage depression as it shows off “perfect lives” of those with more wealthy lifestyles, research suggests. 

The more time adolescents spend on social media and in front of the television, the more severe their symptoms of depression become, it is suggested.

The study of 1,786 girls and 2,028 boys aged 12 to 16 found that if they reported their social media use and television viewing surpassed their overall mean level of use in a given year, then their symptoms also increased that year.

There was no evidence screen time had an impact on adolescent depression by reducing their involvement in physical activities.

But the data did indicate that interacting with media outlets that were more conducive to promoting upward social comparisons was associated with a drop in self-esteem.

Researchers also found evidence that social media - and not other screen-based activities - may promote depressive symptoms in those already suffering them.

Elroy Boers, post-doctoral researcher a Universite de Montreal's department of psychiatry, said: "Social media and television are forms of media that frequently expose adolescents to images of others operating in more prosperous situations, such as other adolescents with perfect bodies and a more exciting or rich lifestyle.

"Furthermore, based on reinforcing spirals theory, people seek out and select information congruent with their current state-of-mind.

"The algorithmic features of television viewing and, in particular, social media, create and maintain a feedback loop by suggesting similar content to users based on their previous search and selection behaviour.

"Thus, the more one's depressive state influences their viewing choices, the more similar content is being suggested and provided, and the more likely one will be continuously exposed to such content, therewith maintaining and enhancing depression."

Researchers from CHU Sainte-Justine and Universite de Montreal say their study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, could have important implications for how youth and families choose to regulate digital screen time.

The team used data from a randomised clinical trial assessing the four-year effectiveness of a personality-targeted drug and alcohol prevention program.

The sample was recruited from 31 schools in Greater Montreal, Canada, and students completed a confidential annual web-based survey during class time to assess screen time and symptoms of depression.

The study used a points scale to rate depression. On average unhappiness levels increased from an average of 4.29 points aged 11 to 12, up to 5.45 points by the age of 15 to 16.

Every extra hour a day on social media was linked to a 0.64-unit increase in depressive symptoms, with similar findings linked to computer use.

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ child and adolescent faculty, said: “This paper is one of the most comprehensive pieces of research to date looking at how different types of technology can have an impact on young people’s mental health. By looking at just under 4,000 young people’s use of four different types of media over a four-year period it gives us an insight into the relationship between mental health and screen time."

“This study suggests that spending more time on social media is associated with an increase in depressive symptoms. One reason why this may be is that comparing your life on social media to the ‘perfect lives’ of others could be having a bad effect on your mental health.”

She said more research was needed -and said social media companies should fund it. 

“We welcome the government’s proposal for a regulator and duty of care for social media platforms and the need for technology to develop better ways of protecting and helping young people.”

Other experts cautioned that the children were selected for the study because they were thought to be at high risk of substance abuse - meaning the findings may not be generally applicable. 

Dr Gemma Lewis, Research Associate in Psychiatric Epidemiology, University College London (UCL), said:

“There are some limitations to this study. The adolescents were originally selected for another study which was testing an intervention to prevent substance abuse, this means the individuals were chosen if they were at high-risk of substance use based on an assessment of their personality characteristics. We know that many of the personality traits associated with substance abuse could also be associated with depression and therefore these adolescents are likely to have a higher risk of mental health problems than the general population of adolescents.”

She also said the study did not show that social media increased the risk of depression - saying it was possible that those suffering for depression were more likely to spend more time online. 

“It may be the case the adolescents who already have depression/depressive symptoms are more likely to use social media and also more likely to use it in a negative way. For this reason, the study does not allow us to conclude that social media use causes depression,” she said.