ELISE HU, HOST:
We're going to hear about a new study now about teenagers and time spent in front of a screen - computers, cell phones or tablets. This is out in the journal Clinical Psychological Science. It shows screen time might have contributed to an uptick in symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts among teens, especially girls. NPR's Patti Neighmond has more.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Researchers looked at national surveys that asked more than half a million teens between 13 and 18 about symptoms of depression. Psychologist Jean Twenge with San Diego State University headed the study.
JEAN TWENGE: Items like, life often seems meaningless. I feel I can't do anything right. And I feel my life is not very useful.
NEIGHMOND: Between 2010 and 2015, Twenge found the number of teens who answered yes to three or more of these questions increased by one-third. And by far the biggest increase was among girls, who were six times more likely to report a symptom of depression than boys. Twenge says that's probably because the screen experience for boys, typically playing computer games, is a lot different than it is for girls.
TWENGE: For girls, a lot of social media revolves around concerns about popularity. Am I going to get likes on this photograph? Do I look good enough in this picture?
NEIGHMOND: The study also looked at suicidal thoughts.
TWENGE: These include things like depression, thinking about suicide, making a plan to commit suicide and then actually having attempted suicide at some point in the past.
NEIGHMOND: Twenge found an increase in suicidal thoughts and suicide deaths - again, mostly among girls. Looking at possible reasons why, she ruled out the economy, which improved overall between 2010 and 2015. She also ruled out stress at school, since the amount of homework she says did not increase. What did increase was online activity.
TWENGE: Playing games on a computer, using an iPod and iPad or a smartphone, using YouTube, using social media sites.
NEIGHMOND: The study found teens who spent the most time on their electronic devices were most vulnerable to depression.
TWENGE: One hour, even two hours doesn't really increase risk all that much. But once you get to three hours and especially four and then, really, five hours and beyond, that's where there's much more significant risk of these suicide attempts and thinking about suicide and major depression.
NEIGHMOND: On the other hand, face-to-face activities, sports, parties, even just going to the mall with friends, seem to be protective. Psychologist Andrew Przybylski at the University of Oxford takes issue with the findings. He says teens may simply be more willing to admit they are worried or sad.
ANDREW PRZYBYLSKI: And so it could be that young people are reaching out. They're telling their parents. They're telling their friends. And they're certainly not feeling bad about filling out a survey about how they feel.
NEIGHMOND: And even though the economy improved during the time period of the study, he says it didn't zero in on individual households.
PRZYBYLSKI: Whether or not the parents in the household were employed or had stable income in this period.
NEIGHMOND: Changes in a family's economic circumstances, he says, can be a leading cause of a child's depression. The findings of this study are in line with a steady stream of research showing women of all ages experience higher rates of depression compared to men. And other studies, including randomized, controlled trials, find when people spend less time on electronic devices, they're happier and less lonely. Twenge says the findings of her study are a warning sign for parents. If their teen spends lots of time online - three, four, five hours a day - they're at a heightened risk of depression. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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