A recent study figures out how different types of screen time influence young people’s mental health. Whether the effect is positive or negative, the study also determines the impact on boys and girls differently.
Conducted by University College London, the study includes 11,341 adolescents from the Millennium Cohort Study, UK population-based, a representative. Scientists found that boys who regularly play video games at age 11 are less likely to develop depressive symptoms three years later. On the other hand, girls who spend more time on social media appear to develop more depressive symptoms.
Lead author, Ph.D. student Aaron Kandola (UCL Psychiatry) said: “Screens allow us to engage in a wide range of activities. Guidelines and recommendations about screen time should be based on our understanding of how these various activities might influence mental health and whether that influence is meaningful.”
“While we cannot confirm whether playing video games improves mental health, it didn’t appear harmful in our study and may have some benefits. Particularly during the pandemic, video games have been an important social platform for young people.”
“We need to reduce how much time children — and adults — spend sitting down for their physical and mental health, but that doesn’t mean that screen use is inherently harmful.”
During the study, study participants answered questions about their time spent on social media, playing video games, or using the internet at age 11. They responded to questions about depressive symptoms, such as low mood, loss of pleasure, and poor concentration, at age 14. The clinical questionnaire measures depressive symptoms and their severity on a spectrum rather than providing a clinical diagnosis.
Scientists also considered other factors that might explain the results. Those factors include socioeconomic status, physical activity levels, reports of bullying, and prior emotional symptoms.
Scientists found that boys who played video games most days had 24% fewer depressive symptoms three years later than boys who played video games less than once a month. However, this effect was only significant among boys with low physical activity levels and was not found among girls. The researchers say this might suggest that less active boys could derive more enjoyment and social interaction from video games.
Scientists noted, “While we were unable to confirm if the relationship is causal. There are some positive aspects of video games which could support mental health, such as problem-solving, and social, cooperative and engaging elements.”
Girls (but not boys) who used social media most days at age 11 had 13% more depressive symptoms three years later than those who used social media less than once a month. However, they did not find an association for more moderate use of social media. Other studies have previously found similar trends, and scientists have suggested that frequent social media use could increase social isolation feelings.
Senior author Dr. Mats Hallgren (Karolinska Institutet) said, “The relationship between screen time and mental health is complex, and we still need more research to help understand it. Any initiatives to reduce young people’s screen time should be targeted and nuanced. Our research points to possible benefits of screen time; however, we should still encourage young people to be physically active and to break up extended periods of sitting with light physical activity.”
- A. Kandola, N. Owen, D. W. Dunstan, M. Hallgren. Prospective relationships of adolescents’ screen-based sedentary behavior with depressive symptoms: the Millennium Cohort Study. Psychological Medicine, 2021; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S0033291721000258