Screen time spent in front of social media and television can take more of a toll on adolescents’ mental health than video gaming, according to a new study spearheaded by a Universite de Montreal researcher.

According to the study, which followed 4,000 Montreal-area high school students between grades seven and 11, time spent watching television and on social media was related to increases in depressive symptoms. Time spent playing video games did not share that relationship.

“(Television and social media have) content that tends to present young people’s lives in very positive ways and promoting idealized images of the lives of young people,” said study author and psychology professor Patricia Conrod. “What we also showed is that not only were these two forms related to increases in depressive symptoms but we were able to explain how they impacted on depression by influencing self-esteem.”

Conrod said her research showed that social media could have a particularly negative impact, as young people are presented with “very idealized images of what the lives of young people are like and presented through social media with images from their own peers.”

“It’s a way of communicating how fantastic everyone else’s life is and young people compare their own lives to these idealized images and don’t measure up.”

Elroy Boers, a postdoctoral researcher in Conrod’s lab who worked on the study, said he was surprised by one of the findings.

“The biggest surprise for me was that video gaming and depression were not related at all over the course of four years,” he said. “Video gaming and aggression have been connected quite a lot, that’s why initially in our thoughts there’d be a link between video gaming and depression.”

Conrod said that she believes what sets video games apart is that young people are able to realize that what’s happening is within a fantasy world.

“Because of the animated nature and the content isn’t provided by your own peers, it has less of an impact on your thoughts and attitudes towards social norms,” she said.

She advised parents to talk to their children to help them understand that there’s a tendency for people to post only favourable images of themselves online – an issue she warned could get worse with the rise of filters and artificial intelligence that will help posters eliminate any of their negative attributes.

“There’s still a lot more research that needs to be done here,” she said. “Considering how much time young people and adults are spending in front of screens, there’s relatively little research on this topic. But with the evidence that exists so far, I’d say it’s not just about the amount of time someone is spending in front of a screen, it’s about what they’re being exposed to.”