In today’s digital world, media and electronics are becoming more prominent, and people are being exposed to them at younger ages. Addiction and related depression, one of the most commonly untreated conditions, are also on the rise. The correlation between electronics, media exposure, and addiction has been shown to increase depression, especially in young people, reduce self-confidence, and reduce efficiency or learning of coping methods.
Screen time has consistently been on the rise ever since the digital age began. On average, adults spend more than 10 hours a day looking at a screen (1). NPR notes that several sixth-graders reported having an average of four hours a day of screen time, and that the average child under the age of eight was “spending roughly two hours a day in front of a screen (2).” “For decades the AAP has warned that children need to cut back on their screen time. Entertainment ‘screen time’ should be limited to two hours a day for children ages 3-18. And, for 2-year-olds and younger, none at all (2).” This is significant given that an average eight year old, or younger, already has met or surpassed the recommended screen time. It is also of note that older children are more likely to spend more time in front of a screen than their younger counterparts.
Schools are also contributing to increasing screen time in young people. “A lot of school systems are rushing to put iPads into the hands of students individually, and I don’t think they’ve thought about the social cost. This study should be, and we want it to be, a wake-up call to schools. They have to make sure their students are getting enough face-to-face social interaction. That might mean reducing screen time (2).” While schools are helping students learn to be tech savvy, they may also be hindering them from learning crucial social skills.
Face-to-face interactions help to develop social skills and coping methods that can’t be learned from a digital device. UCLA conducted research in which one group of students had no access to electronics at a five-day camp, and the other group resumed life as usual for five days. “At the beginning and end of the five-day study period, both groups of kids were shown images of nearly 50 faces and asked to identify the feelings being modeled. Researchers found that the students who went to camp scored significantly higher when it came to reading facial emotions or other nonverbal cues than the students who continued to have access to their media devices (2).” They continue to explain that if children don’t maintain the necessary face-to-face interactions on a daily basis, they will eventually lose this social skill. UCLA also notes that parents and schools need to be aware of screen time, how it can negatively affect the social skills of young people, and to set a “healthy media diet” for their students and children.
Considering the lack of development in social skills in young people engaging in media and screen time, the increase in depression at a younger age is not surprising. “Television exposure and total media exposure in adolescence are associated with increased odds of depressive symptoms in young adulthood, especially in young men (3).“ Depression used to be an adult only condition, but it is now, more and more frequently, being seen in young people.
The JAMA notes “depression is the leading cause of nonfatal disability worldwide. Because onset of depression is common in adolescence and young adulthood, it coincides with a pivotal period of physical and psychological development and can lead to poorer psychosocial functioning, lower life and career satisfaction, more interpersonal difficulty, greater need for social support, more comorbid psychiatric conditions, and increased risk of suicide. Even after recovery from an initial episode of depression, affected young people frequently experience substantial psychosocial impairment and are at increased risk of recurrence of episodes of depression (3).” Depression at a younger age means that as a whole, the younger generation is more at risk for higher depression rates and overall lower life satisfaction later in life. Lower life and career satisfaction will decrease their productivity in the workforce and the nation will spend more on healthcare to help reduce this psychological disorder.
Depression in young people is very much preventable. “In terms of the sheer volume of exposure, adolescents who spend excessive time engaging with media may not have as much opportunity as their peers to cultivate protective experiences that require active social, intellectual, or athletic engagement. Related to this, excessive media exposure often occurs at night and can displace sleep, which is valuable for normal cognitive and emotional development (3).” The “cure” for depressed adolescents is less screen time, and therefore media, more sleep, and more face-to-face interactions. By reducing screen time, adolescents will be forced to engage with other people, face-to-face, and learn the social skills that are protective against emotional and psychological disorders.
On top of the association and very common link between media and depression, the type of media and it’s message has an even deeper effect on the mind and adds another layer to be aware of. “Cultural messages transmitted through media may affect other behaviors related to mental health such as eating disorders and aggressive behavior, and media exposure may similarly contribute to development of depression through reinforcement of depressogenic cognitions. For example, certain electronic media exposures are saturated with highly idealized characters and situations, and constant comparison of one’s self with these unattainable images may result in depression (3).” Comparing oneself to another often leads to discouragement. It is also of note that others only portray the best of their lives online or on social media. Often, this leads to comparison between the worst of one person’s life to the best of another person’s life, which can affect users of all ages.
However, not all media is bad, and not all media or screen time contributes to lower self-esteem or depression. “It should also be noted that exposure to certain media content might reduce the likelihood of developing depression. Humor, an important element of entertainment, is frequently portrayed in television programs, popular songs, movies, and video games (3). The JAMA also continues to note that studies have shown laughter to significantly reduce stress and is being used as a therapeutic method for depressed and terminally ill patients, and that “life-affirming” messages found through media can potentially be protective against depression (3). So rather than the actual screen time, the type and content of the media one is exposed to will ultimately determine if that screen time will contribute to depression or strengthen their self efficacy. Nevertheless, social skills are still not developed during this screen time, whether it’s life affirming or depressing.
However, regardless of whether or not the content is viewed as good or bad, the high amounts of screen time and media consumed at such a young age is to be of much concern as the root cause of depression caused by electronics may actually be due to an underlying addiction. “Many children are “hooked” on electronics, and gaming releases so much dopamine—the “feel-good” chemical—that on a brain scan it looks the same as cocaine use. When reward pathways are overused, they become less sensitive, and more and more stimulation is needed to experience pleasure. Meanwhile, dopamine is also critical for focus and motivation, so needless to say, even small changes in dopamine sensitivity can wreak havoc on how well a child feels and functions (4).” Essentially, electronics are as powerful, and have the same effect, as cocaine on our brains. Considering the average screen time, across all ages, is on the rise, this is of great concern for our national health as electronics can, and have, become an addiction, especially if usage is not monitored.
While electronic addictions can affect all age ranges, addiction in young people is especially dangerous. “Studies such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health… indicate that some children are already abusing drugs at age 12 or 13, which likely means that some begin even earlier. Researchers have found that youth who rapidly increase their substance abuse have high levels of risk factors with low levels of protective factors (5).” As electronics have the same effect as cocaine, and media usage decreases coping and social skills, those who are becoming reliant upon screen time to feel more pleasure stimulation are at a higher risk for addiction later in life.
Addiction has also been shown to be a cause of depression. “…There are a number of emotional factors which may be related to college students’ Internet addiction. Among these factors the most remarkable are depression, anxiety and stress. Research… demonstrated that the overuse of the Internet… was associated with an increase in the frequency of depression (6).” Elon University also studied Internet addiction in Generation Y and found that of the participants addicted, they were also suffering from about four of the five components of addiction, depression fitting in just before the relapse phase (7).” Ultimately, by increasing usage of screen time and digital media, we’re allowing ourselves to become blindly addicted and fall into unnecessary depression.
There is a direct link between digital media use and depression and overall screen time should be reduced at all ages, but particularly in young people as they are still developing. However, there may be virtue to life affirming or humorous media messages as these help to reduce depression. Despite the possible virtue in media messages, addiction may play a big role in contributing to the depression seen with use of electronics, and is a large concern for adolescents. Overall, the consensus on reducing the negative effects of electronics and digital media is simply to unplug.
- Howard, Jacqueline. “Americans at More than 10 Hours a Day on Screens.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 July 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/06/30/health/americans-screen-time-nielsen/index.html.
- Summers, Juana. “Kids And Screen Time: What Does The Research Say?” NPR, NPR, 28 Aug. 2014, www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/28/343735856/kids-and-screen-time-what-does-the-research-say.
- Brian A. Primack, MD, EdM, MS. “Association Between Media Use in Adolescence and Depression in Young Adulthood.” Archives of General Psychiatry, American Medical Association, 1 Feb. 2009, jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/210196.
- Dunckley, Victoria L. “Screentime Is Making Kids Moody, Crazy and Lazy.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 18 Aug. 2015, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201508/screentime-is-making-kids-moody-crazy-and-lazy.
- Abuse, National Institute on Drug. “When and How Does Drug Abuse Start and Progress?” NIDA, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/preventing-drug-abuse-among-children-adolescents-in-brief/chapter-1-risk-factors-protective-factors/when-how-does-drug-abuse-start-progress.
- Akin, Ahmet, and Murat Iskender. “Internet Addiction and Depression, Anxiety and Stress.” IOJES, 2011.
- Cabral, Jaclyn. “Is Generation Y Addicted to Social Media?” Strategic Communications Elon University, 2010, Strategic Communications Elon University.