Social Media Use Linked to Depression in Teens, Study Finds

Young girl intently looks a cellphone screen

Sharon McCutcheon /

But video games are surprisingly OK, making teens feel happier.

A new study has confirmed what many of us already suspect – that prolonged time spent on social media increases depression in adolescents. Published in July 2019 in The Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, the study from the University of Montreal, found that, out of four kinds of screen time – video gaming, television, computer use, and social media – the latter has the most negative effect, followed by television consumption.

The study followed approximately 4,000 students from 31 schools in the Montreal area over a period of four years, from grade 7 to grade 11. The participants self-reported the amount of time they spent on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, played video games, watched TV, and hung out on computers. The average amount of time spent on screens was 6-7 hours per day.

Lead study author Patricia Conrad, a professor of psychiatry, explained: "What we found over and over was that the effects of social media were much larger than any of the other effects for the other types of digital screen time." Her reason for it? "It exposes young people to images that promote upward social comparison and makes them feel bad about themselves."

The teen years are challenging enough, with significant physical and hormonal changes happening to their growing bodies. Add to that the pressure created by social media to meet unrealistic beauty standards maintain a lavish lifestyle like the ones exhibited by celebrities and influencers, and the pressure to avoid judgment from others. Suddenly it's not surprising that young people are struggling with self-esteem and happiness.

Young people who are already prone to depression exacerbate their symptoms through social media use, partly because of the information they choose to consume, e.g. blog posts about self-esteem issues: "[This] in line with a study showing that the lower adolescents’ mood level, the less positive media content they select."

Curiously, video games were found to be a positive influence, making teens feel happier. The CBC reported, "The study suggests the average gamer is not socially isolated, with more than 70 percent of gamers playing with other people either online or in-person."

What's clearly needed is greater education surrounding the smart use of social media. Good 'digital citizenship' is something that co-author Elroy Boers would like to see taught in schools, as knowledge about when and what to post online is lacking.

The authors say there has been little research into the effects of social media on adolescent wellbeing, as it's a relatively new phenomenon, and that it's likely the risks are greater than we realize at this point in time. Parents, doctors, and educators would do well to inform themselves and to regulate teens' use of screens to reduce depression.