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Internet Linked To Teen Depression

January 19, 2011

A new study finds that too much, or too little, Internet use may be linked to depression among teens. 

The research showed that teens who spent no time online, as well as those who were heavy Internet users, were at increased risk of depression symptoms.

Dr. Pierre-Andre Michaud and colleagues at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland surveyed 7,200 participants aged 16 to 20 years old about the frequency of their Internet use.

Those who said they were online more than two hours per day were classified as “heavy” Internet users, while those who were online from several times per week to two hours daily were classified as “regular” users.

The participants also answered several health-related questions, including some about “depressive tendencies” that assess how often a person feels hopeless or sad.

The results showed that teens that were either heavy Internet users or non-users were more likely to be depressed or very depressed than those who were “regular” Internet users.

Among male participants, heavy Internet users and non-users were both one-third more likely to have a high depression score, compared with “regular” users.  Among girls, heavy Internet users had an 86 percent greater chance of depression compared with regular users, while non-users had a 46 percent greater chance.

Nevertheless, average depression scores among non-users, regular users and heavy users were all near the lower end of the scale — between 1 and 2 on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being “not depressed at all.”

A separate study published last year in which pediatricians in Sweden were queried to estimate rates of mental health disorders in young patients found average teen depression rates of around 1.4 percent.

The researchers said it was not yet clear why both heavy Internet use and non-use were linked to higher depression risks in teens. 

Since many teens use the Internet to connect with friends, perhaps those who are never online may be more socially isolated, they speculated.

As for heavy Internet use, prior studies have found links to depression symptoms, although the underlying reasons remain unclear.

One study of Taiwanese teens found that depression symptoms typically preceded kids’ heavy Internet use, noted Michaud and his colleagues.

The current study found that certain other health concerns were also more common among heavy Internet users. For instance, 18 percent of males who were heavy Internet users were overweight, compared with just 12 percent of regular Internet users.  And in female teens, 59 percent of heavy Internet users were sleep-deprived, compared with 35 percent of regular users.

As with the other findings, the reason for these relationships is unclear.

It may be that some teenage girls exchange bedtime for online time, or that sedentary computer time may result in weight gain among boys, the researchers speculated.

Michaud and his team concluded that either excessive time online, or little to no time online, could be indicators that a teen is having problems.

However, regular Internet use — up to two hours per day in this study — appears to be “normal”.

The researchers noted that the study was conducted in 2002, before the ubiquity of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.  Many teenagers now spend much more time online, which could alter the definition of “normal” Internet use.

The study was published online January 17 in the journal Pediatrics.

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