by W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang
Thursday, 3
November 2022
Chart
07:30

New study: depressed teenagers spend more time online

Excessive screen use has been linked to broken family units
by W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang
Based on teens aged 11-18. Source: IFS/Wheatley Institute

New research has found that children from outside nuclear families are more prone to spending time online. The latest survey report by the Institute for Family Studies reveals that adolescents from non-intact families spent almost two hours more per day on their screens than teenagers who live in intact, married-parent families. Consequently, they spend more time on social media, texting, gaming, and a range of other online activities, compared to their peers from stable homes.

The survey of 1,600 US adolescents aged 11 to 18 also found that children from non-intact families — such as single-parent, step-family, and foster families — were also more likely to have their dinners interrupted by tech. Only 25% of teenagers in non-intact families reported that their families eat dinner together without media distractions almost every day, compared with 35% of teens in intact families. 

 

These findings have disturbing implications. Teenagers from non-intact homes who were heavier tech users (devoting eight or more hours per day to screens) were also the most distressed in the sample of 1,600 adolescents. They were about twice as likely to be depressed, twice as likely to be lonely, and significantly more likely to be sleep-deprived, compared to their peers from intact families who were lighter tech users (spending less than eight hours per day on screens). For instance, after controlling for gender, age, race and mother’s education, only 13% of children who were lighter tech users were depressed (in either family type), whereas among heavier users 23% of adolescents from intact families and 31% from non-intact families were depressed. These findings thus indicate that both family instability and high levels of tech use are associated with greater emotional distress among today’s teenagers.

Source: IFS/Wheatley Institute

The research suggests that, amid growing public and scholarly concern about adolescent technology use, we also need to pay attention to the family contexts of such use. That’s because family instability is one fault line around which teenage devotion to screens, as well as the emotional fallout of too much time online, is separating our adolescents. Children from unstable families seem more susceptible both to losing themselves to virtual worlds and to paying a heavy psychological price for it. At the same time, the good news here for kids and parents in families of all types is that adolescent emotional problems are minimised when tech use is kept to a minimum.

Given the findings in this report, both parents and policymakers need to step up to address the challenges posed by technology today. Parents, including single parents, stepparents, cohabiting parents and foster parents, can take heart from the fact that lighter tech use dramatically reduces the odds that teenagers from all types of families end up with mental health problems. At a minimum, to rein in the role of tech in their teenagers’ lives, parents should take steps like postponing giving their child a smartphone until they are 16 or older, not allowing social media use until high school (or at all) and limiting hours spent on smartphones. Another useful step would be making sure that children turn in their phones at bedtime and thus aren’t tempted to use them when they should be sleeping.

Policymakers should also consider new steps to limit the role of Big Tech in our teenagers’ lives, like requiring that social media giants such as TikTok and Meta verify their users’ ages and get parental permission before allowing minors to use their platforms. Without such initiatives, the research suggests that large minorities of kids will continue to experience major psychological distress, especially when their lives have already been turned upside down at home.

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Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 month ago

On other breaking news, the sky is blue and water is wet.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Bear defecates in woodlands.

ralph bell
ralph bell
1 month ago

It’s always good to have the ‘bleeding obvious ‘ backed up by research and discussion.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  ralph bell

Sadly, it’s not just good but necessary nowadays when “postmodernists” deny even the existence of objective facts.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago

Teenagers spending eight hours or more a day looking at screens? I have to do that to earn a crust and it drives me up the wall. No wonder they’re miserable. Fresh air and vigorous exercise is what they need.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

It staggers me how blase society is about divorce and unmarried/single parents. I have lost count on the number of studies I have seen that show the devastating effect these things have on children. Not that you need these studies to tell you this, as I have never met a kid from a broken home who wasn’t deeply unhappy.
Yet 50% of marriages end in divorce and 50% of kids are born out of wedlock (where the rate of separation is even higher than for married couples).
I suppose the truth is just to painful to contemplate.

Last edited 1 month ago by Matt M
Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 month ago

The genetic confound rides again.
Perhaps people with a predisposition to depression, loneliness and asociality are the ones most likely to break up their marriages or to have children in unstable relationships.
These predisposition are heritable as we know from Polderman et al 2015.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

Yes, untangling cause and effect is not always straightforward however many statistics one has. I shall look up Polderman et al 2015.

Tony Sandy
Tony Sandy
1 month ago

Is the use of computers cause or effect? In other words does coming from a broken home mean that life depresses (disappoints) you and leaves you seeking contact through a medium that ignores direct human contact? Maybe online life is easier for such people and not as painful as real life. From the point of view of someone, probably on the autistic spectrum, sensitivity to direct contact with ordinary human beings can be overwhelming. So for those from broken homes perhaps this is also true (instability creating sensitivity and inability to interact with others successfully).

h w
h w
1 month ago

8 hours a day on screens in “light” use? Peer reviewed research says max is: “No more than 2 hours per day of recreational screen time.” Gov’t and schools completely ignore this; schools require kids to be on screens in and out of class. It’s a fight with a teachers to get paper and books instead of screens. If we care about kids’ development, we need an anti-screen time campaign like the anti-smoking campaigns with warnings on products, billboards, no-screen zones. https://www.participaction.com/the-science/benefits-and-guidelines/children-and-youth-age-5-to-17/

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
1 month ago

Correlation does not equal causation.
I have had a number of bouts of depression over the years and turned to TV—in the old days—and tech (web browsing)—in the new days. Both offer a very handy escape and are less harmful than booze or drugs.
Sorry, still not buying the “tech is evil” argument. At least not based on this article.
Now the family instability piece…