With the cases of teen depression rising every year, we must take a step back and reflect on what societal changes might be contributing to this mental health disorder surge. One area of our lives which has increased dramatically over the past two decades is the use of technology. In particular, social media platforms with their prevalence and commonality in everyday living, have seen a massive explosion.
While technology and social media undoubtedly provide many advantages for our society, such as better connections and solutions to everyday problems, the adverse effects of these two areas cannot be ignored.
The Rise in Teenage Depression
A 2016 study found that there has been a 37% increase in reported mood disorders among adolescents and young adults over a nine-year period, which is a concerningly sharp increase.
Depression in teenagers presents with the typical symptoms of depression, including:
- feelings of sadness, anxiousness, worriedness, and emptiness
- loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed
- easily irritable, frustrated, or angry
- declining school grades
- withdrawing from friends and family
- changes in eating or sleeping habits
- thoughts of harming oneself or suicide
The problem, however, lies in the fact that the teenage years are also a time of intense hormone changes and peer relationship problems, which can sometimes manifest as symptoms of depression. Because of this, the symptoms of depression are often brushed off as typical “teenager” behavior, which can be detrimental to the health of someone struggling with depression.
How Technology May Contribute to Teenage Depression
One area that has grown increasingly popular over the past decade and which is a prominent component of a teenager’s life is technology. Unfortunately, this might just be contributing to the higher rate of teen depression. There are multiple areas to consider, including the technology itself, the amount it is used, and what it is used for.
The amount of time teenagers spend in front of a screen can be concerning for parents, and rightfully so in some cases. A study investigated how four factors of screen time, social media, television, computer use, and video gaming, impacted depression. Of these four areas, all but video gaming were associated with depression. The study also found that increased social media and television use is associated with lower self-esteem over time, which can also lead to depression.
Electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation is something that is produced by technology such as our cell phones, computers, and tablets. In essence, EMF radiation is produced by the things we use frequently. Unfortunately, multiple studies link EMF radiation exposure to negative psychiatric symptoms, depression being one of them.
The reason for this reaction has to do with the voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCC) in the brain. VGCCs have important roles in the release of neurotransmitters and neuroendocrine hormones, and these channels are also activated by EMF radiation. This can result in excessive neurotransmitter/neuroendocrine hormone release in addition to oxidative stress. Studies have found that these effects of EMF radiation may then result in the symptoms of depression, including fatigue, sleep disturbances, headaches, memory changes, and irritability.
The connection between systems of our body and light has long been observed. For example, you are much more like to feel happy on a sunny day than a rainy day, and that is because the light from the sun affects your emotions. However, there are also indirect connections between light and specific systems, which are the likely contributors to mood disorders.
The effect of blue light on the body has everything to do with our circadian rhythm, which is the natural and cyclical changes in our physical, mental, and behavioral states. The primary cues for circadian rhythm include light and darkness, and some processes regulated by circadian rhythm include sleep-wake times, cellular function, hormone secretion, and gene expression.
Blue light inhibits the production of melanin, which is a hormone produced by the body to promote sleepiness. The sun produces blue light at its strongest during the day, which helps to sync circadian rhythm with the rise and fall of the sun.
However, electronics also emit blue light, and they are becoming much more popular during the night hours. Any light can disrupt sleep, but blue light, in particular, is the most powerful, with one study finding that it suppressed melatonin for twice as long as other forms of light. By using screens before bed, melanin production is inhibited, which leads to difficulty falling and staying asleep. These sleep disturbances can greatly contribute to depression, as sleep disturbance is a significant factor in the onset and maintenance of mood disorders.
While there is undoubtedly evidence that both teen depression and social media use has increased over the past decade, it is harder to say with absolute certainty that social media causes depression. However, there is still an impact of social media on kids.
Research has shown that teenagers who spend more time on social media also feel more lonely and isolated, suggesting that connecting with peers through social media is not as emotionally fulfilling as in-person interactions.
Social media may also lead to poor self-esteem in teenagers because they find themselves constantly comparing their bodies and lives to those they see on social media. This can lead to negative perceptions of oneself, which can result in depression.
Reflecting on Technology
There is no doubt that technology has proven to be an immense advantage and one that we will have a hard time parting with, especially as it continues to evolve. However, it is still important to recognize that not all aspects are good, and some are causing severe mental health problems to teenagers.
Technology affects teenagers not only in what they see while on their devices, such as social media posts that cause poor self-image, but they also emit EMF radiation and blue light, which can disrupt sleep and increase the risk of depression.
While it is impossible to expect teenagers to forego their devices entirely, it is crucial to encourage limiting their use, talking through any negative emotions, exercising, getting outside in the sun, and putting them away for a couple of hours before bed. Adopting these habits can help encourage a healthy mental state.