Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine contacted 106 adolescents up to 60 times via cellphone over 5 weeks to ask about their media use at the time of the call. Forty-six teens had already been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Of the five media activities (television or movies, music, video games, Internet, and print media, such as magazines, newspapers, and books), only listening to music and reading were correlated with depression. In other words, the depressed teens were significantly more likely to be listening to music and less likely to be reading print media than the non-depressed teens. The researchers properly conclude that the association does not prove causality:
Major depressive disorder is positively associated with popular music exposure and negatively associated with reading print media such as books. Further research elucidating the directionality and strength of these relationships may help advance understanding of the relationships between media use and MDD.
These results are not surprising. One of the symptoms of depression is withdrawal. In previous generations, depressed teens would shut themselves in their room and listen to music on their stereos. Now, Ipods and MP3 players make it possible for them to isolate themselves while in the presence of others. The finding that depressed teens spend less time reading is likely due to poor concentration--another symptom of depression.
Sometimes researchers demonstrate their own problems in interpreting correlational results. The supposed discovery of "Facebook depression" is one such example. A clinical report published in Pediatrics linked teen depression and time spent on Facebook. In it, the authors created the term "Facebook depression" which they defined as "depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression." They go on to state that "adolescents who suffer from Facebook depression are at risk for social isolation and sometimes turn to risky Internet sites and blogs for 'help' that may promote substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices, or aggressive or self-destructive behaviors."
Dr. Grohol points out in his critical analysis (Pediatrics Gets It Wrong About 'Facebook Depression') that the authors incorrectly relied on correlational results and second-hand media reports to come up with the term. He concludes:
If this is the level of “research” done to come to these conclusions about “Facebook depression,” the entire report is suspect and should be questioned. This is not an objective clinical report; this is a piece of propaganda spouting a particular agenda and bias. The problem now is that news outlets everywhere are picking up on “Facebook depression” and suggesting not only that it exists, but that researchers have found the online world somehow “triggers” depression in teens.Overdrawn conclusions from single studies misdirects public attention away from known risk factors of depression such as child abuse, bullying, family history and learning disabilities.It leads parents to believe that limiting their teenager's time listening to music or using Facebook will prevent emotional problems including depression. If only it were that simple.
Primack, B., Silk, J., DeLozier, C., Shadel, W., Dillman Carpentier, F., Dahl, R., & Switzer, G. (2011). Using Ecological Momentary Assessment to Determine Media Use by Individuals With and Without Major Depressive Disorder Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 165 (4), 360-365 DOI: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.27
O'Keeffe, G., Clarke-Pearson, K., & , . (2011). The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families PEDIATRICS, 127 (4), 800-804 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-0054