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Teens who use the internet too much are more likely to be depressed, study finds

Experts say loneliness plays a role in both time spent online and mental health outcomes

Photo (c) martin-dm - Getty Images
Many parents worry about how much time their teens are spending on the internet. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Concordia University has explored the mental health risks associated with excessive time online. 

According to their findings, there is a strong correlation between teens’ problematic internet use (PIU) and an increased risk of depression. They explained that several factors like loneliness and gender come into play, but mental health can be significantly affected by excessive time online.  

“Our study tries to understand this relationship in a bi-directional or reciprocal way,” said researcher István Tóth-Király. “We think that PIU and depressive symptoms are likely to be co-occurring instead of one determining the other. They likely reinforce one another over time.” 

The link between depression and internet use

To understand the risks between PIU and depression, the researchers followed nearly 2,000 high school aged participants for three years. The group reported on how much time they spent on the internet and how they felt about their social connections, their academic performances, their relationships with their parents or caregivers, and their overall mental health and wellness. 

The researchers learned that those with higher levels of PIU were at an increased risk of developing depression-related symptoms. They also found that several different factors made the participants more likely to spend excessive amounts of time on the internet. 

The study revealed that teens who felt neglected by their parents spent more time on devices. The opposite was also true -- participants who felt more supported and cared for by their parents logged fewer hours online. Both gender and loneliness also played a role in PIU; boys were more likely than girls to spend excessive time on the internet, and those who felt dissatisfied with their personal relationships were also more prone to PIU.

When is internet use problematic? 

Though there are mental health risks associated with excessive screen time, the researchers explained that a lot of internet time isn’t necessarily always problematic. Some teens cycle in and out of spending tons of time online, and they’re able to successfully maintain other areas of their lives, including interpersonal relationships and academic performance. The researchers offered parents some tangible signs to look for that could be an indication of PIU. 

“If adolescents spend a lot of time on the internet but it doesn’t really impact their mental health or their grades or doesn’t seem to have any substantial negative consequences, then we cannot really say this is problematic behaviour,” said Tóth-Király. 

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