Teenagers who have an unhealthy dependence on the Internet are almost twice as likely to become depressed as other teens, giving parents yet another good reason to limit kids' screen time. That's the news from a study in Pediatrics, which tracked the Internet use of teenagers in China, where "Internet addiction" is considered a serious and growing problem.
The researchers tracked 1,041 teenagers, finding out how much they used the Internet and whether that use was unhealthy. They used surveys similar to those used with pathological gamblers. A typical question asked: "How often do you feel depressed, moody, or nervous when you are offline, which goes away once you are back online?" The vast majority of the teens, 94 percent, weren't pathological Internet users. But 6 percent were considered moderately at risk. Nine months later, those students were one-and-a-half times more likely to have symptoms of clinical depression than teens who were less dependent on the Internet, though they had not been depressed before.
Depression is common among teenagers; each year, an estimated 2 million teens and preteens develop clinical depression, and last year the federal government recommended that all teenagers be screened for depression. So parents may want to note the link between "Internet addiction" and depression, and keep a closer eye on children who depend on screen time as a pacifier or mood stabilizer. A recent study also found a correlation between video game use and ADHD. Like the "Internet addiction" study, no causal link has been proven, but one-third of children exceed the two hours of daily TV and computer screen time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Setting limits on screen time— and enforcing them—can really help.
"Think of media as a stranger being invited into your home to teach your kids for seven hours a day," says Victor Strasburger, a pediatrician who studies the effects of media violence and is chief of the division of adolescent medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. "Your kids could be learning 'good' things or potentially harmful things, or a combination of both." His advice: Stick to the AAP's guidelines on screen time; keep TV sets and Internet connections out of children's bedrooms; and no screen time for children under age 2.