Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: I read that spending too many hours on social media is linked to an increase in teen depression and suicidal thoughts. I worry about my own kids, but what can we do? Everything is online now, and I don't want my kids to be outcasts.

Dear Reader: Navigating the often-fraught transition from childhood to adulthood has never been easy. Whether we're reaching back centuries to the passions of Shakespeare's doomed pairing of Romeo and Juliet, glancing back decades to the alienation of Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye," or clicking the "follow" button on any of the current crop of pretty-please-look-at-me young social media stars, the challenges of being a teenager remain the same.

Adolescence is a time of swift and bewildering change. It's often accompanied by hyper-awareness of one's self, a deep need to fit in, and the sometimes-contradictory wish to stand out. It's no surprise that in the thundering echo chamber of social media, where every move gets not just scrutiny but also instant (and often merciless) judgment, kids get emotionally overwhelmed.

The goal of the study was to learn whether the online ecosystem, which devours so much of our kids' time and attention, has a role in the recent increase in symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts among adolescents. Headed by a psychologist from San Diego State University, researchers parsed the results of national surveys whose questions delved into the mental health of 500,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 18.

The findings, published last November in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, suggested that increased screen time may indeed contribute to, or worsen, adolescents' feelings of alienation and loneliness. This proved to be particularly true of girls, whose screen time skews to social media platforms, with their highly visible currency of accumulated "likes." Boys tend to gravitate to online games, the study said, where prowess is valued over looks or personality. Overall, increased screen time equaled increased feelings of depression.

Though the study results do suggest a link between increased online time and feelings of isolation, researchers admit they fall short of proof. Based on the data, though, the authors recommend keeping online time to less than three hours per day.

And, yes, we can hear your sigh of frustration from here. Because the truth is that being online is quite literally addictive. As you said in your question, kids who don't take part can get left out. Limiting screen time is, at best, an ongoing struggle. At worst, it's a bruising battleground.

Still, basic online hygiene is important. A good starting point would be no screens at meals and no screens overnight in bedrooms. This has to apply to adults as well, or it's not going to work. We believe that the other half of the equation is increasing human contact. Have your kids invite friends over to your house for activities on a regular basis. Start a weekly family fun day. Get your teens involved in volunteer work. (Something that correlates to existing interests has the best chance of success.) Even a small shift offline and into the real world can make a difference.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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