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KC Parent: Screen Time and Depression in Teens Is There a Connection?

By Christa Melnyk Hines

As rates of smartphone use rise among teens, researchers are also seeing an increase in teen depression. Could the two be related? And if so, what can parents do to buffer their kids from the adverse effects of screen technology?

What the research says. According to the National Institutes of Health, today’s teenager spends roughly five to seven hours a day engaging with friends online, perusing social media, watching YouTube and gaming.

Psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge, author of iGen, studied trends among children born between 1995 and 2012. Through her groundbreaking research, she discovered that as more smartphones landed in the hands of teens, depression and unhappiness also began to rise.

How screens affect the body and the brain. Dr. Ram Chettiar, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, Children’s Mercy Kansas City, agrees that children who are heavy users of screen technology are more at risk for mental health issues like anxiety and depression, as well as social and family conflict.

Too much screen time can also negatively affect a teen’s ability to focus for extended periods of time. And when screens are kept in the bedroom, they can affect sleep quality. The blue lights from electronic devices delay the body’s natural release of melatonin, a neurohormone produced by the pineal gland that makes you sleepy.

Social media and video gaming are like candy for the brain. The immediate gratification we experience from social media likes or achieving the next level in a video game creates short bursts of dopamine, a feel-good reward chemical in the brain. Those quick hits of rewards flooding the brain keep us going back for more. The more we consume, the more we “may desensitize the brain’s reward system, regulated by dopamine,” Chettiar says.


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Learn more about Developmental and Behavioral Health at Children's Mercy