Is there a connection between technology, media, and teen depression? Yes, but it's complex

The percentage of U.S. teens experiencing depression increased 59% between 2007 and 2017. (opens new window) That’s around the same time that smartphones and other screen media became widely used (opens new window).

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the average teenager spent over 7 hours looking at media on their screens. For teens who are now in online school or who can only talk to their friends via smartphones and social media, that number has soared.

Research has found an association between how much time teens spend using technology and viewing media, and depression. However, the associations are somewhat inconsistent, meaning that connections between technology, media, and depression are likely more complex than just the amount of time they use it.

The specific experiences teens have using technology and media — such as the quality of their social interactions or their emotional reactions to experiences — are more relevant for their mental health than how much time they spend on screens.

Teens who spend the same amount of time each day using technology may have very different outcomes depending on how they use it. One teen may use it to learn new skills and practice coding whereas another might scroll through Instagram wondering why his/her life isn’t as great as “everyone else’s”. Yet another teen might use social media to view uplifting or informative content, in contrast to a teen who sees hateful messages or experiences harassment.

These are just a few examples of specific experiences teens can have with media that may have differential impacts on their well-being. In this article we'll explore the relationship between technology, media, and teen depression in more detail and provide suggestions for how parents can help their teens foster healthier relationships with technology and media.

# Exposure to disturbing media content can have an immediate negative impact on teens’ thoughts and feelings.

We speak with many parents who say their teens are not actively seeking out content that would be considered disturbing (e.g., racism, sexism, etc.), so, therefore, they believe their teens aren't viewing disturbing content. However, many teens are exposed to disturbing content online by accident.

Remember, any device that can access the internet can expose teens to all sorts of content. For example, nearly 2 out of 3 teens say they have come across racist, sexist, homophobic, or religious-based hate content on social media (opens new window) and more than 70% of teens report being unintentionally exposed to online pornography (opens new window).

This type of content can come in many forms. Teens may be exposed to alarming or hateful content in online news — whether real or “fake news” — that they may struggle to understand and may cause fear and anxiety. Exposure to violent media is also associated with feelings of fear and worry, which may increase the likelihood of developing chronic anxiety or depression.

Hypersexual content can also have harmful effects, including adolescents (especially girls) overvaluing their appearance or sex appeal, which can lead to low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, and possibly depression.

# Being the victim of cyberbullying is strongly associated with depression for teens.

“She received messages like: the world would be a better place without you.” In this video, 14-year old Trisha Prabhu discusses hearing about a young girl’s suicide due to bullying on the Internet and then set out to find a long-term solution to cyber-bullying.

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All bullying can cause harm, but cyberbullying may be even more harmful than offline bullying. For example, because smartphones are available 24/7, it can be harder to escape the bullies. Additionally, online content can be hard to delete permanently, so when cyberbullying involves sharing someone’s embarrassing or sexual photos without consent, the problem can seem like it will never go away.

# Online social comparison can make people feel bad about themselves.

Social comparison online can be especially harmful for teens, who may have less skepticism about how realistic or honest images and online posts are. In traditional media, including magazines, TV, and movies, representations of peoples’ perfect lives or bodies can make adolescents feel that their lives or physical appearance is not good enough.

On social media this can be even more problematic, since peers’ idealized social media posts may seem like they should be attainable, even though social media posts often represent the highly-edited “highlight reel” of someone’s life. These experiences can lead to low-self-esteem and dissatisfaction with appearance, which can increase the likelihood of depression.

In this video, teens talk about who people are on social media. “Who’s happier? Who’s richer? Who appears to be the best?”

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# Online peer experiences can be fraught with conflict, tension, and anxiety for adolescents.

“It’s so much easier to fight with your friend over your phone than it is to fight with your friend in person”

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Experiences of peer conflict or exclusion can be exacerbated in the context of media. For example, when adolescents are excluded from social events, seeing photos of the event posted online can be extremely painful. Adolescents also report “fear of missing out” (aka, FOMO) as a common source of anxiety, which can encourage excessive social media checking.

Social conflict, which is necessary for adolescents to build social skills, is also amplified on social media. “Drama” can unfold with a broad online audience and may involve more mean and hateful comments than teens would say in-person.

# As a parent, you can help your teen develop a healthy relationship with media.

Importantly, media (yes, even social media) does offer benefits. It can be relaxing, informative, or provide opportunities to connect with friends. These benefits are important to remember—and encourage—to build teens’ healthy relationship with media.

  • Encourage healthy offline experiences - are they getting enough sleep, interacting face-to-face with other people, and engaging in fun and stimulating offline activities.
  • Ask your teen about their specific experiences with media - rather than just asking about or limiting how much time they spend with media. Are they getting in fights with friends? Do they ever feel like others are mean to them online? Do they ever compare themselves (their looks, lives, bodies, etc.) to people they see on social media. If so, does that ever make them feel anxious? Have they seen any specific content that they found disturbing, alarming, etc.? If so, how did they handle it and do they have any questions?
  • Encourage self-reflection and critical thinking - this can help teens make sense of their online experiences and develop greater resilience and mental health.

These conversations can be difficult to have — your teen may roll their eyes or insist that they already know these things. However, they may not have actually heard these messages elsewhere. Conveying the importance of a healthy relationship with media can plant a seed that will help them balance their technology use and mental health throughout their lives.

All in all, frequent media use can have harmful effects on teenagers, but it's not as simple as more time using tech leads to depression or other mental health challenges. It may be more important to know if teens are seeing disturbing online content, experiencing cyberbullying, engaging in social comparison, or having social conflict. These and other factors may better explain why media is associated with depression. Learning to navigate these experiences can help teens use media in positive, safe ways, and may reduce their chances of experiencing depression.

# Authors

Dr. Doug Kaufman is the CEO and Founder of Vertroos Health and Nika. You can learn more about Dr. Kaufman here (opens new window).

Anne (Annie) Maheux is a Ph.D. student in Developmental and Social Psychology at the University of Delaware and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Her research examines sociocultural influences on adolescent development with a focus on gender, as well as how peers and media affect adolescent mental health, sexual initiation experiences, and academic achievement. Her research has been published in high-impact peer-reviewed journals and has been supported by the American Psychological Association and the Character Lab Research Network.

# Do you or your child need support right now?

If you or your child are in a crisis situation please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones.

If you're not in crisis but would like to connect with an online counselor (through our partnership with Betterhelp), please use one of these links: