Links between screen time and depression in adolescents more complex than first thought

April 25, 2023
Black Dog Institute

Monday, 17 October 2022

Adolescence, the period between the ages of 10 and 19, has changed in many ways over the past two decades and this has coincided with an increase in rates of depression, especially among teenage girls.

With adolescents interacting online more than ever, new data from the Black Dog Institute shows screen time and depression in adolescents may be linked – but not for the reasons we assume.

Online social interaction provides adolescents with many benefits to expand their social support networks, find like-minded communities and access help if they need it. However, unmonitored technology access – particularly among younger adolescents – may also expose them to negative interactions that increase their risk for mental health problems such as depression. 

With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, there has been a significant change in how adolescents socialise and engage with their peers relative to previous decades.

Recent estimates indicate that adolescents spend, on average, 14.4 hours each week online, and approximately one-third of teenagers now spend an equal amount of time interacting with their peers online as they do in person.

In 2019, the Black Dog Institute launched the Future Proofing Study, which is now the most comprehensive study of adolescent mental health in Australia. 

“Data from the Future Proofing Study has shown that more screen time is associated with higher rates of clinically significant symptoms of depression in adolescents, and this link is stronger in girls. This emerged with as little as one hour of screen time a day for girls but was only evident at the highest levels of screen time (5+ hours a day) for boys,” says Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, Associate Professor at the Black Dog Institute.

Analyses revealed that none of the assumed factors – such as negative social evaluation from social media use, greater changes in peer relationships, cyberbullying, or sleep disruption – fully explained why depression and screen time were more strongly linked in teen girls than boys.

We raise the possibility that the direction of the relationship may be reversed – depressed girls may turn to digital media as a way of coping.  

“The possibility that depression leads to increased screen use, rather than the other way around, needs to be examined using longitudinal data – something we will investigate as the Future Proofing Study progresses,” Dr Werner-Seidler said.

The Future Proofing Study also asked adolescents about the issues of greatest concern to them. Students’ top concerns were school and academic performance, COVID-19, social relationships, and mental health. 

Key points on depression in adolescents:

  • Rates of depression among adolescents are rising. Recent data from the US shows between 2008 and 2020, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–17 who reported having experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past 12 months more than doubled, from 8.3% in 2008 to 17.0% in 2020. This increase was especially pronounced among adolescent girls.  
  • Depression is almost three times more common in adolescents as it is in children, with the most recent Australian estimates (2013–14) indicating a prevalence of approximately 5%, and adolescent girls experiencing depression at a rate much higher than that of adolescent boys.
  • The rates of depression in teenagers who identify as gender or sexuality diverse are significantly higher than cisgender, heterosexual teens. Approximately 40-60% of gender and/or sexuality diverse teens report clinically significant symptoms of depression, compared to 7-20% for cisgender, heterosexual teens.
  • Depressed teen girls are more likely to engage in self-harm than depressed teen boys. Rates of self-harm and suicidality were also higher among depressed gender and sexuality diverse teens.

Turning the tide on depression: A vision that starts with Australia’s youth

Our new report seeks to answer the questions: Are young Australians experiencing higher rates of depression than in the past, and if so, why?

We look at how childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood have changed over the past two decades, and how social factors may be increasing young people’s risks for depression. We also examine the unique experiences of depression in young First Nations people.

Chapter 2 of the report examines how adolescents’ lives have changed over the past two decades and we use new data from Australia’s largest study on adolescent mental health, the Future Proofing Study.

READ CHAPTER 2: Depression in Adolescents