In these modern times, it can be hard to prise away teenagers from the clutches of TV or video games. Now, new research suggests that high media use, combined with low physical activity and lack of sleep, may increase the risk of mental illness for adolescents.

This is according to a study published in the journal World Psychiatry.

The research team, led by investigators from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, recruited 12,395 adolescents aged between 14 and 16 years from randomly selected schools across 11 European countries.

The researchers analyzed the participants for the prevalence of risk behaviors – such as excessive alcohol use, illegal drug use, reduced sleep, sedentary behavior and high use of TV, internet and video games not related to school or work – using a questionnaire called the Global School-based Student Health Survey (GSHS).

The research team wanted to see whether these behaviors were linked to mental illness – such as depression, anxiety and conduct problems – and self-destructive behaviors in the adolescents.

On assessing the results, the investigators discovered three risk groups.

Teenager laying on the floor looking at a computer screen.Share on Pinterest
Researchers found that teenagers who had high media use, sedentary behavior and reduced sleep showed symptoms associated with mental illness.

The first group, labelled the “high-risk” group, scored high on all examined risk behaviors. This group was made up of 13% of the adolescents.

The second group, deemed the “low-risk” group, made up 58% of the adolescents. This group had no or very low frequency of risk behaviors.

The investigators were surprised by the third group, which they labelled the “invisible-risk” group. This was made up of 29% of adolescents who had high media use, sedentary behavior and reduced sleep.

Although these behaviors are not usually associated with mental health issues, the teenagers in this group showed similar levels of suicidal thoughts, anxiety, subthreshold depression (less than five symptoms of depression) and depression as adolescents in the “high-risk” group.

The researchers note that based on these findings, child carers should consider what may appear to be less serious risk behaviors as potential mental health risks:

While most parents, teachers and clinicians would react to an adolescent using drugs or getting drunk, they may easily overlook adolescents engaging in unobtrusive behaviors such as watching too much TV, not playing sports, or sleeping too little.

While discussions with adolescents often focus on substance abuse and delinquency, the risk behaviors identified here need to be considered, and special attention given to encouraging sufficient sleep, participation in sports and using new media moderately.”

Overall, the researchers say their findings suggest that risk behaviors and mental health problems are relatively common among adolescents.

The study also revealed that all risk behaviors and symptoms of these increase with age, which the researchers say is in line with previous studies.

Furthermore, the investigators found that the most common risk factors among boys were drug and alcohol use, while reduced sleep and a sedentary lifestyle were more common among girls.

“In summary, the results of this study confirm the need for early prevention and intervention in the mental health field,” the study authors add, “[…] preventive interventions should be tailored specifically for boys and girls.”

Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that exercise may boost teenagers’ academic performance, while other research suggests that playing violent video games may reduce teenagers’ self-control.