Albert Einstein once said, “I get most joy in life out of music.”
And while that might seem like a beautiful sentiment, it doesn’t necessarily jibe with the latest studies. According to new research, the more time teens spend listening to music, the more likely they are to be depressed.1
The study, which took place at the University of Pittsburgh, examined the relationship between depression in teenagers and the types of activities on which they spend the most spare time. The scientists gave 106 teenage volunteers cell phones, then used them to call the kids as often as 60 times during an eight-week period. The teens were asked to report what they were doing whenever a call was made. Close to half of the teenagers involved in the trial had received a diagnosis of clinical depression by a psychiatrist.
The reports on what the teenagers were spending their time doing was nothing surprising to either the researchers or parents of teens, since the vast majority of the teens spent a good chunk of their days absorbed in media. Television, computers, texting, and listening to MP3 players were the most popular activities. The most common way to while away the days was watching TV or movies, accounting for 26 percent of their time. Interestingly, there didn’t seem to be much of a correlation between time spent watching TV and depression among teens, which contradicts the findings of previous studies.
The relationship between listening to music and depression, however, was very strong. Although the teenagers only spent an average of 9 percent of their time listening to music, those who spent the most time listening were found to be eight times more likely to be depressed than those who didn’t listen as often. It should be noted that the study did not break down the types of music that teens listened to and whether sonatas (as if many teens listen to sonatas) produced different results when compared to gangsta rap.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the music is causing depression in these kids. In fact, the researchers made no attempt to identify cause and effect. The reason for the study was simply that depression is a major health problem for teenagers, so the researchers thought it was worth looking into. A better explanation of cause and effect in this case, according to the researchers, is that the teens are seeking comfort in the music and choosing an activity that really requires no effort on their part. (So it looks like Albert Einstein can rest in peace.) At the other end of the spectrum were the teenagers who spent the most time reading — which, sadly, only occurred a paltry 0.2 percent of the time. But the ones who were the most frequent readers were ten times less likely to be depressed as those who read the least. That could be because reading expends more mental energy than listening to music or watching TV — which might be indicative of a teen who is correspondingly more proactive, rather than passive, about the circumstances they confront in life.
This is not really good news, because we all know that teens spend a lot more time plugged into an Ipod than they do with a good book or even a newspaper. And to make matters worse, a 2010 study at five universities found that teens and young adults are now far more depressed, unstable, and narcissistic than they were 70 years ago.2
Researchers analyzed psychological data compiled between 1938 and 2007 on students who took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a personality test that diagnoses mental illness and personality structure. According to the results, kids today are far more troubled than they were back in 1938, during the great Depression no less! Six times as many youths today test as clinically depressed compared to back then (six percent versus one percent), and six times as many register as anxious (five percent in 1938, but a whopping 31 percent now).
Since we’re not likely to be prying our teenagers away from all things media-related any time soon, we may just have to be extra vigilant as parents. Maybe their music-listening habits can be a tool for helping us determine when they are getting depressed. And remember, it’s not “necessarily” the listening to music that’s the problem, but rather the amount of listening and the reason for the listening — passivity — that count. Given that, you might want to see if you can get your teens involved in some kind of regular physical activity. And in fact, there are studies that show that exercise works better than pharmaceutical drugs when it comes to relieving depression.
1 Primack, Brian A.; Silk, Jennifer S; DeLozier, Christian R.; et al. “Using Ecological Momentary Assessment to Determine Media Use by Individuals With and Without Major Depressive Disorder.” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. April 2011. American Medical Association. 23 June 2011. http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/165/4/360 .
2 Twenge, Jean M.; Gentile, Brittany; DeWall, C. Nathan; et al. “Birth Cohort Increases in Psychopathology Among Young Americans, 1938-2007: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the MMPI.” Science Direct. March 2010. Elsevier B.V. 24 June 2011. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027273580900141X>.