An analysis of data from a longitudinal study of child development in Canada showed that girls who spent more hours on the internet at 13 years of age tended to have higher depressive symptoms at age 15. In the same way, girls’ internet usage at age 15 was associated with more depressive symptoms at 17. These associations were absent in boys. The study was published in Psychological Medicine.

Major Depressive Disorder, commonly known as depression, is a mental health disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in activities. Treatments for depression include psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. However, current treatments may not be fully effective, as 30% to 50% of individuals with depression continue to experience symptoms even after treatment.

Depression is becoming more prevalent worldwide, with projections from the World Health Organization suggesting it will be a leading cause of disease burden by 2030. Adolescence is a crucial period, as individuals who experience depressive symptoms during this time have a higher likelihood of developing major depressive disorder in adulthood. Poor mental health during adolescence can lead to academic difficulties, challenges in relationships, and a decreased quality of life. Moreover, teenagers with depressive symptoms may resort to self-medication, leading to the development of unhealthy habits such as smoking, alcohol consumption, or illicit drug use.

Study author Caroline Fitzpatrick and her colleagues wanted to better understand the relationship between adolescent internet use and depressive symptoms. They hypothesized that higher levels of internet use might be associated with increases in symptoms of depression over time, but that this relationship might differ between boys and girls.

The researchers analyzed data from the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development (QLSCD) conducted between 1998 and 2018. This study included 2,837 children born between 1997 and 1998 in Quebec, Canada. About half of the participants were girls, and 72% were described by their primary caregivers as Canadian. Approximately 22% of families reported being under the poverty cut-off for Canadian households.

The study focused on information collected from 1,547 individuals at ages 13, 15, and 17, spanning from 2011 to 2015. Participants reported their weekly internet use (excluding school-related activities) such as browsing, online gaming, chatting, and using Facebook. Additionally, at age 13, participants self-reported on their depression symptoms over the past two weeks through eight statements developed by the Quebec Institute of Statistics for the purposes of this study (e.g., “I hate myself”, or “I do most things well”). At ages 15 and 17, participants reported on their depression symptoms through another online questionnaire.

The results showed that girls reported substantially higher depression scores than boys at all ages. They also reported more hours of internet use per week than boys at age 15. Average Internet use times of girls and boys were similar at 13 and 17 years of age. However, further analysis suggested that girls and boys might interpret depression-related statements differently, raising questions about the validity of comparing their depression symptoms. Due to this, researchers conducted further analysis on boys and girls separately.

Boys who used internet more tended to report more depressive symptoms. However, depressive symptoms and internet use at age 13 were not associated with depressive symptoms and internet use at age 15. But depressive symptoms at age 15 were associated with depressive symptoms at age 17. The same was the case with internet use, indicating that, between these two ages, depression symptoms and internet use habits in boys showed some stability although internet use at an earlier age did not predict depression at a later age.

In girls, results showed a correlation between internet usage at an earlier age and depression symptoms at a later age. The more hours girls spent using the internet at an earlier age, the more symptoms of depression they reported at a later age.

The study makes a valuable contribution to scientific understanding of relations between internet use and depression. However, it should be noted that researchers only examined the self-reported length of internet use and did not include any details of Internet activities in the analyses. Additionally, all participants came from a single region of Canada and were French speakers.

The study, “Is adolescent internet use a risk factor for the development of depression symptoms or vice-versa?”, was authored by Caroline Fitzpatrick, Annie Lemieux, Jonathan Smith, Greg L. West, Véronique Bohbot, and Mark Asbridge.

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