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Media and Depression: Good News and Bad


I’m sure many parents have gone through the evaluation of their children and teens’ emotional ups and downs and have wondered how the media may be affecting their mood. Speaking from personal experience, my teens never seem to be any happier after spending a few hours in front of nearly any screen media -- and I notice this more with my boys than with my girls.


Perhaps I’m more of an armchair psychologist than I give myself credit for. A study I recently uncovered from earlier this year says that watching television can lead to higher odds of depression-related behavior, and adolescent males appear to be the most likely to become gloomy after experiencing hours of screen time.


Dr. Brian A. Primack from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a team of colleagues followed the media use of about 4,100 healthy adolescents -- none of who were reporting symptoms of depression. Over the period of seven years, the kids reported an average of a little more than 5 1/2 hours of media exposure each day, including 2.3 hours of TV viewing.


At the end of the seven years, the average age of the subjects were now close to 22 years old and 308 of them (or 7.4 percent) had developed symptoms of depression. But where it gets interesting is for each hour of TV viewed per day, the subjects likelihood of showing depressive tendencies increased significantly.


There were a few twists to the outcomes. As mentioned, girls were less likely to develop symptoms of depression. Also, before you toss out the video game console, the researchers didn’t find a consistent relationship between the development of depression symptoms and the use of computer games, videocassettes (I would assume this would also hold for DVDs and other recorded movies) or the radio.


I guess we can only conclude that TV has gotten so bad that it literally is a depressing experience watching it regularly.


But while teens are advised to “turn off,” yet another study that has just begun is looking at whether grandparents would benefit from logging onto Facebook or other social media websites. With many elderly people also suffering from depression due to loneliness and isolation, University of Alabama-Birmingham sociologist Shelia Cotton, Ph.D., wants to see if access to the Internet and social networking sites may enhance the personal interactions and relationships of senior citizens.


The plan is to have graduate students train 300 senior adults at selected assisted-living facilities in Alabama. They will teach their students how to blog, send emails, use sites like Facebook and access online health information.


Cotton is quoted on psychcentral.com, saying, “Once older adults cross the digital divide, they can access health information much more easily using the Internet than they can go to the library or visit a health care professional.”


While it sounds promising, I suspect the best part of the exercise for the seniors will be the time spent interacting face-to-face with the graduate students who are teaching them. Setting up our aging population to sit in front of computers and have virtual relationships and medical appointments sounds far too Orwellian for me. However, I can appreciate how this use of social networking in moderation may help to alleviate the symptoms of depression.


What is evident from both the completed study and the design of the new study on aging adults is how important real world relationships are. No matter how “real” the media becomes, it will never replace a good chat over lunch.


Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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