Allentown, Pa. Watching the superhero cop on television save the day and win the affection of his sexy crime-fighting partner may whittle away at an awkward teenage boy’s self-esteem and even lead to depression by the time he becomes a young man, a new study has found.
The study, published this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry, links TV exposure in boys’ and girls’ teenage years with increased odds of showing symptoms of depression in young adulthood, especially for young men.
“As someone watches television portrayals over and over again with people more beautiful and wealthier than they are, selling products they can’t afford ... will they start to feel bad about themselves?” asked the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Brian Primack, an assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
The data suggest the underlying messages teens are getting from TV could make them feel bad, in some cases enough to become depressed.
Primack and his colleagues, who followed more than 4,000 teenage boys and girls for seven years, found that each additional hour of daily TV use increases the likelihood of depression by 8 percent.
Cause or symptom?
Certain teens could also be watching more TV because they are already depressed, said Dr. John Campion, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry for Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley Health Network. Too much TV could be a symptom of depression.
“They are hypothesizing that too much television is a cause, but it may well be that the kids who are ill are responding to (the TV),” said Campion. “My guess is it’s probably a mix of the two.”
Campion said the study reinforces what clinicians are already doing, which is asking children about their activities and looking for red flags such as sitting home alone watching TV all day, he said.
“We know that’s an indication there is something wrong with that child’s ability to get out,” Campion said.
At the same time, Primack said, certain shows, including comedies, actually lower the risk of depression. TV is also often a reason for people to socialize, as many people did on Super Bowl Sunday, he said.
Exactly how much TV is too much, particularly for teens, isn’t clear. Primack suggests parents follow the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatricians, which recommends that older children be limited to an hour or two of television a day.
“It’s a pretty good estimate overall,” he said.
The most surprising finding for Primack and his colleagues was that teenage boys seem to be the most vulnerable to TV exposure and are more likely to develop symptoms of depression as a result. Originally, researchers thought girls would be more likely to become depressed after being exposed to images of impossibly thin, perfect women.
“Maybe there are as many similar messages dealing with the idealized male and we just haven’t noticed them,” Primack said.