The following was written by guest blogger Dr. Brian Primack, University of Pittsburgh researcher and author of the new study Association Between Media Use in Adolescence and Depression in Young Adulthood: A Longitudinal Study.
One of the important things about this study, I think, is just that it gets depression on our proverbial radar screen. We rightfully hear about the potential relationship between media exposure and substance use, violence, and eating behaviors. But we hear less about depression, even though it is the leading cause of morbidity worldwide according to the World Health Organization.
Let me first be very up-front about the limitations of this study. Whenever you use a large data set such as this, you have to be concerned about the reliability of the data. These adolescents self-reported their media use and their symptoms of depression. Although the survey was anonymous and they wouldn’t have a lot of reason to lie, they certainly could have been remembering selectively.
That being said, it is interesting that there was a relationship between self-reported TV exposure and depression, but that we didn’t see the same thing with regard to videocassette, video game, or radio exposure. This begs the question: what is it about TV?
The theories regarding this come in two major piles: format and content. With regard to “format,” perhaps if you are sitting doing anything for several hours a day, you are taking time away from potentially protective activities such as sports participation, social gatherings, or sleep.
The “content” argument says that there may be things about what we actually see on TV that can lead to depression. For example, TV has many more advertisements than those other media formats. Many advertisements are designed to make you feel that your life is incomplete without some particular given soap, computer, or car. Perhaps the more of those you see, the more likely you are to internalize that you are “not good enough.” How many of us are going to feel truly fulfilled if we begin to internalize the rosy vision that TV portrays for us?
However, it could be just the opposite—maybe it is the “doom and gloom” messages on TV that lead us to think of the world as a horrible, mean place, which also may affect our mood. Indeed, there was a JAMA study in 2002 that showed that people who watched a lot of TV after 9/11 were, in some cases, more likely to show symptoms of PTSD than people who were actually in the building at the time!
The variety of potential causes highlights that we need to look into this area further. One of the most important things we can do is to try to better assess specific media exposures among adolescents. I am glad that the Center on Media and Child Health is a leader in helping achieve this!