This month’s issue of Archives of General Psychiatry features a study which looked at the relationship between media exposure and depression in young adults. This was a very well done study, by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. Researchers studied over 4,ooo teens over a period of seven years. Results showed a direct relationship between exposure to television and likelihood of developing depressive symptoms. Of course, you are thinking, and rightly so, that this doesn’t necessarily mean that television watching causes depression in teens. And the authors make no such claim. Like any respectable study, the authors offer possible theories which might explain the results. So, until a cause/effect relationship is found, what can we gain from these results? I think that far too often, we attribute the isolation and withdrawal seen in teens to “normal adolescent behavior”. Yet, we also attribute rebelliousness, excessive socializing, and an overall sense of carelessness to that same continuum of “normal”. We can go further, and look at the middle of the continuum, where teenagers are just plain going out, hanging out, learning how to drive, and learning how to be independent while maintaining their grades, family relationships, and identity. The question is: should we accept the entire continuum as “normal”? Should we, the parents, just leave these teens alone, because it is all just part of growing up? In regards to this study, what do we know about teens and their needs? Sure, those teens that watch more television could have already been vulnerable to developing symptoms of depression. It is also feasible that increased hours of television watching leads to depression or depressive symptoms. What we need to do is pay attention. We do not need to accept behavior that we see in our teens as “just a phase”, or normal development. We need to notice, because they are not going to come to us and tell us. Does your teen have a balance of things in his/her life? If a teenager or preteen is coming home from school, and sitting in front of the television or computer for the rest of the day, you need to notice. If they are online, but chatting with perfect strangers, you need to notice. If they have nowhere that they feel that they belong, albeit a sport, band, club, group of friends, you need to notice. Nobody needs a large number of friends, as long as a sense of belonging exists.
The results from the study done at the University of Pittsburgh will provoke discussion, fear, anxiety, and regret. Parents who have just assumed that hours of television watching was harmless are going to beat themselves up for not “putting their foot down” years ago. That is not going to help you or your child. If your child has at least one good friend, goes to school, has a job, or other activity, then a couple of hours of television or computer or video games is not going to cause any harm. Notice your child, and how they are spending their time. Make sure they are not doing anything in isolation all of the time. Notice whether or not they have any interest in doing anything outside of the home. Just notice.