April 5, 2011 — The amount of time a tween or teen spends listening to music appears to be associated with his risk of major depression, a new study shows.
Study researchers are quick to point out that the music probably isn’t causing the depression, although it may be a way for children to find refuge or connection when they’re feeling bad.
“It’s very important not to interpret this as something evil about music. In fact, it may actually be very helpful to people who are very depressed,” says study researcher Brian A. Primack, MD, assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“I think the reason it was important to publish is because it is a very strong association,” Primack says.
In fact, Primack and his co-authors found that the most frequent music listeners in the study had more than eight times the odds of being depressed compared with those who listened the least.
The study wasn’t designed to measure total listening times, but based on previous research, Primack estimates that children in the highest-use group are probably plugged into their iPods or stereos for more than four or five hours a day.
“It’s an important thing to know about because it may help clinicians and parents and teachers to realize that very heavy use could be a marker for depression in some people,” he says.
The study also found that children who were depressed were less likely to read books, magazines, or newspapers, compared to children who weren’t depressed. That may suggest either that reading may have some protective effects against depression or that children who are depressed can’t concentrate long enough to engage in it.
Media and Depression
For the study, researchers recruited 46 children with major depressive disorder and 60 of their peers who had no history of psychiatric disorders. Study participants ranged in age from 7 to 17. The average age was 12.
All the children were given special cell phones that could only take incoming calls.
Researchers used the phones to call the recruits several times each day from Friday to Monday, over five long weekends. Those who completed all 60 phone calls got a $250 bonus.
At each phone call, participants were asked if they were currently watching, reading, or listening to any of six different kinds of media — television or movies, music, video games, Internet or magazines, or newspapers or books.
They then divided study participants into four groups, based on the amount of time they spent with each kind of entertainment and cross-referenced it with depression status.
Internet and video game use appeared to have no association with depression, and in a surprise to researchers, neither did TV or movie viewing.
“We hypothesized that there would be an association between depression and music, but that there would also be one regarding television, and that they would be of about the same strength,” Primack says.
“We sort of thought to ourselves that when you have depression, your brain is not working properly. So it’s much harder to sit down to a book and have to use a lot of the frontal lobe of your brain to create the story and the characters in your head, whereas, it should be quite easy to flop down in front of a television and turn on whatever’s there,” he says.
For print readers, there was a clear positive association with depression. That is, the more a participant reported reading, the less likely they were to be depressed.
The group that reported the most reading, for example, had a 90% lower risk of being depressed than the group that reported reading the least.
“We don’t know which direction this goes, but it’s certainly possible that reading may be protective,” Primack says, “But it’s also possible that people who are emotionally healthy are able to focus and engage in active types of media experiences, like reading.”
The study is published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
Depression in Teens
Primack says more research is needed to sort out why listening to music appears to be linked to depression.
For now, though, he says the value of the information may just be as a way to help spot kids who are having trouble.
Compared to adults, depressed teens are more likely to be irritable or angry, to complain of physical aches and pains like stomachaches or headaches, and to be extremely sensitive to criticism. Like adults, they may withdraw from people, but they are more likely to keep contact with at least one or two friends, though these contacts may suddenly come from a different social group.
“It may be valuable for people to help pick up cues for common behaviors like listening to music,” Primack says.