Chinese teens who either spend more time on screen activities, such as watching TV or surfing the Web, or less time on non-screen activities are at much greater risk of depression, according to a new study published in the journal Heliyon. The link is even stronger in girls.

The number of digital media users in China has been increasing rapidly. Previous research has shown that behavioral problems, depressive symptoms, and suicide in nearly all developed countries have escalated since World War II.

“Digital media, as compared to more traditional media such as television, have profoundly changed the modern life of the average Chinese citizen,” said lead investigator Jie Zhang, Ph.D., Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing, and University at Buffalo in New York.

“They can now shop, navigate to travel, browse information, consume various entertainment media, and communicate with one another in an unprecedented manner, and adolescents also spend more and more time using digital media.”

“However, access to these digital media may have detrimental outcomes, such as distraction from work or school, the spread of false information about individuals, online bullying, and reduced face-to-face social interactions, all of which can lead to anxiety, depression, and suicidality.”

In China, young people are facing serious psychological difficulties, according to researchers. Recent evidence shows that the prevalence of depressive symptoms among Chinese students ranges from 11.7 percent to 22.9 percent, representing a significant public health concern, given the established link between depression and suicide in China.

Researchers designed a cross-sectional study to investigate the link between new digital media and depressive symptoms in a representative Chinese adolescent sample. They looked at more than 16,000 Chinese adolescents ages 12 to 18 using data from the 2013-2014 China Education Panel Survey (CEPS).

The first goal was to study factors that might impact depression, specifically comparing traditional screen time (watching TV); digital media screen time (online); non-screen time (sports, exercise, reading, and cultural activities); and experiencing depressive symptoms among adolescents.

The researchers also looked at the potential influence of gender, grade level in school, hometown, number of children in the family, and socioeconomic status on depressive symptoms. The second goal was to compare associations across different economic groups.

The findings reveal that greater media consumption screen time is related to depression among Chinese adolescents, although online screen time is a stronger predictor. The study also showed that digital media had a greater impact on depression among girls, which is consistent with evidence of greater depression and suicide among women compared to men in China.

The less economically developed western area of China showed the strongest link between digital media and depression, although the link was still significant in all economic regions. The influence of traditional screen time was more inconsistent within the group studied, with TV time predicting depression only in the eastern area and lax parental TV control buffering depression only in the eastern and western areas.

In addition, the study highlights that non-screen time can decrease depression, although the exact nature and strength of this relationship varies across economic regions.

“The new digital media, if not appropriately managed, creates public health hazards in adolescents,” said Zhang.

“There are numerous and significant differences in economy, culture, and education between China and Western countries, as well as clear differences in adolescent depression and suicide behavior. Therefore, it may not be appropriate to make inferences about how digital media impacts negative outcomes among Chinese adolescents from findings that utilize samples from Western countries.”

Source: Elsevier