Heavy television viewing among teens increases risk of depression later in life

Teenagers who watch a large amount of television are significantly more likely to become depressed later in life according to a longitudinal study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The 2009 study titled Association Between Media Use in Adolescence and Depression in Young Adulthood was conducted by Brian A. Primack, MD, EdM, MS, Brandi Swanier, BA, Anna M. Georgiopoulos, MD, Stephanie R. Land, PhD, and Michael J. Fine, MD, MSc

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Objective and Methodology

These researchers sought to assess the association between media exposure in adolescence and depression in young adulthood. They used a nationally representative sample – the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health) – to investigate the relationship between electronic media exposure in 4142 adolescents who were not depressed at baseline and development of depression seven years later. Initially, the teens were asked how many hours they had spent watching television each week. They reported an average of 2.3 hours. Seven years later (at an average age of 21.8), participants were screened again. More than 300, 7.4 percent had developed symptoms consistent with depression.

Findings: More TV Increases Risk of Depression

“Those reporting more television use had significantly greater odds of developing depression for each additional hour of daily television use. In addition, those reporting more total media exposure had significantly greater odds of developing depression for each additional hour of daily use.”

While the researchers did not find a consistent relationship between development of depressive symptoms and exposure to pre-recorded video, computer games, or radio, they did find a statistically significant correlation at the 95% confidence level with television.

Interestingly, they also found that men were more likely than women to develop depression given the same total media exposure.

How Television May Cause Depression

Results suggest that media exposure may influence development of depression through a variety of factors. Some are related to the medium itself, others to content.

Relating to the medium itself, the researchers theorize that:

  • Time spent passively watching television could displace more positive interaction with family and friends
  • The audio and video could energize the senses in ways that contribute to poor sleep.
  • Excessive viewing could interfere with development of good thinking skills, and potentially contribute to cognitive distortions.

Regarding potential links related to content, the researchers point to facts such as:

  • Large amounts of advertising which may present adolescents with unattainable images
  • Role models that exhibit high degrees of risk taking behaviors
  • Stereotypical characters that may affect self-image
  • Anxiety-provoking shows.

Why is this so crucial? The authors point to other studies that show:

  • Depression is the leading cause of nonfatal disability worldwide.1
  • Because onset of depression is common in adolescence and young adulthood,2, 3 it coincides with a pivotal period of physical and psychological development.
  • Depression can lead to poorer psychosocial functioning, lower life and career satisfaction, more interpersonal difficulty, greater need for social support, other related psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, and increased risk of suicide.4, 5

My Take

It should be noted that since this study was conducted four years ago, television viewing among teens has increased. Many now use it as a background medium while multitasking. Through multitasking, teens are now exposed to an average of 10.5 hours of media content per day – up TWO HOURS per day from an average of 8.5 hours when these researchers conducted their study.

To be sure, not all of those 10.5 hours are spent on television, but the trend is alarming – especially when you conider that internet addiction (IA) is also becoming a problem among teens and that IA has also been linked to depression. (See previous post.) This could help explain, in part, a 400% increase in the use of antidepressants reported by the CDC.

In my next post, I’ll explore the relationship between multitasking and depression.

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  1. Lopez AD, Mathers CD, Ezzati M, Jamison DT, Murray CJ. Global and regional burden of disease and risk factors, 2001: systematic analysis of population health data. Lancet. 2006;367(9524):1747–1757. [PubMed]
  2. Blazer DG, Kessler RC, McGonagle KA, Swartz MS. The prevalence and distribution of major depression in a national community sample: the National Comorbidity Survey. Am J Psychiatry. 1994;151(7):979–986. [PubMed]
  3. Commission on Adolescent Depression and Bipolar Disorder . Depression and bipolar disorder. In: Evans DL, Foa EB, Gur RE, et al., editors. Treating and Preventing Adolescent Mental Health Disorders: What We Know and What We Don’t Know: A Research Agenda for Improving the Mental Health of Our Youth. Oxford University Press; New York, NY: 2005.
  4. Paradis AD, Reinherz HZ, Giaconia RM, Fitzmaurice G. Major depression in the transition to adulthood: the impact of active and past depression on young adult functioning. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2006;194(5):318–323. [PubMed]
  5. Reinherz HZ, Giaconia RM, Hauf AM, Wasserman MS, Silverman AB. Major depression in the transition to adulthood: risks and impairments. J Abnorm Psychol. 1999;108(3):500–510. [PubMed]
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One thought on “Heavy television viewing among teens increases risk of depression later in life

  1. The part about how content could affect developing minds and expectations in particular resonates with me. TV shows seem to more and more depict people with much greater incomes and high-expense lifestyles than they did when I was a kid watching TV. Back then, more people on TV seemed to live a life similar to what I or other family members or friends lived. Now? You have to wonder how people with jobs like barista or demon-hunter have the money to purchase high-end electronics and decent cars!

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