New Study Stirs Controversy Over Social Media Use and Depression Link in Teens

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A controversial new study published Tuesday in the Clinical Psychological Science journal claims that an increased use of electronic devices is linked to a spike in depression symptoms and suicidal thoughts among teens, especially among teenage girls.

San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, who led the study, recognizes that the study's findings only establish a correlation between screen time and depression. However, she still believes the research is a wake-up call.

"One hour, maybe two hours [a day] doesn't increase risk all that much," Twenge claims. 

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"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."

The study analyzed national surveys over five years from two annual questionnaires taken by US high school students: Monitoring the Future and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. The surveys asked more than 500,000 teenagers between the ages 13 and 18 about their depression symptoms and online activity.

"Among those who used electronic devices five or more hours a day, 48 percent had at least one suicide-related outcome. Thus, adolescents using devices five or more hours a day (versus one hour) were 66 percent more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome," Twenge wrote in the paper.

In addition, the findings revealed that girls were six times more likely to report depression symptoms than boys.

Although many parents may now be tempted to throw out their child's cell phone, other researchers aren't so sure about the study's credibility.

Amy Orben, a social media psychologist and college lecturer at Queen's College at the University of Oxford, wrote a Medium post claiming that Twenge's study drew "grand conclusions with widespread implications using such weak and inconsistent links."

In her analysis, Orben criticizes Twenge's methodology, stating that Twenge did not sufficiently eliminate other causes that could have led to increases in teenage depression and suicide, such as stress about the future. 

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"Twenge's paper fails to account for many other factors that could have lead to an increase in adolescents' depressive symptoms in the past decade. Teens can suffer because of their parents' economic situation, bereavement or stress about examinations or the future. Furthermore, the public discourse around mental health has changed, leading to differences in diagnosis and increasing levels of confidence about sharing mental health issues," Orben wrote.

"We need more good quality, open and replicable science before we can start making grand claims about social media's effects. Great claims require great evidence — and great evidence has not yet been found," she added.

According to Adam Pletter, a child psychologist based in Washington, DC, even though there is controversy regarding the effects of social media, there is often a technology general gap between kids and their parents.

"We are digital immigrants," Pletter says. "We did not grow up with internet and cell phones — at least most of us did not. So there's a real dilemma, in that we're in charge of safeguarding our kids and teaching our kids how to be savvy digital users, and we don't have all the skills. Many of us are afraid of the technology."

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