Heavy Media Use Associated With Poorer Mental Health

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Results released today from the National Annenberg Survey of Youth (NASY) indicate that although concerns about excessive Internet use may be justified, heavy use of television may be an even larger concern. In one of the most extensive national surveys of media habits over a two-year period, six different types of media use were identified in young people ages 14 to 24.  Among these types, a small group of Heavy Internet and TV users was projected to represent about 10% of American youth. This group uses the Internet much more than others but also uses TV at a higher rate. The group tends to report more recent experiences of hopelessness than other young people (51% vs. 39% on average). At the same time, a much larger group of Heavy TV using youth (17%) uses television at a very high rate but only average amounts of the Internet. Nevertheless, this group also reports high levels of hopelessness (49%). 

The results of the study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center are being presented at the meetings of the International Communication Association in Boston this weekend. The study involved over 700 young people interviewed in each of years 2008 and 2009. The six patterns of media use were found across both years of the study, indicating that they are quite characteristic of young people’s media use. The current report focuses on the types found in 2009. However, a more recent survey in 2010 found the same types as in the prior years.

“Old media, such as TV, may be just as problematic as new media,” said Dan Romer who directs the NASY. “Many of the concerns about heavy Internet use may just be the reaction to a newer form of media. To understand the role of media, one has to look at the entire pattern of media use and not just the Internet.”

The survey identified the different types of media use patterns after controlling for differences in age and gender. That we are able to classify young people solely in regard to their media use suggests the importance of media use in the lives of young people. The Heavy Internet & TV group and Heavy TV group only stood out from the other groups demographically by being somewhat less populated by non-Hispanic white youth (50% and 46%) than average (62%) (see Table 1 below for demographic differences). 

The Heavy Internet/TV group tends to use the Internet for blogging, social networking, and video game playing (see Figure 1 below for differences in indices of media use). It also tends to get lower grades in school than other groups (see Figure 2 below for indices of outcomes) and to participate less in sports and other extracurricular activities. The Heavy TV group tends to watch TV primarily for entertainment purposes but also reports above average use of magazines, movies, and news programming. The group does manage, however, to participate in sports and clubs at about average levels.

The largest group, The Information Seekers, is projected to account for nearly a quarter of young people. This group was quite well adjusted with lower rates of hopelessness (33% reported having such experience). This group tends to use media in moderate amounts with greater emphasis on consumption of news, books, and other information. In addition, these youth are physically and socially active and tend to get high grades in school. Not surprisingly, this group also tends to live in the wealthier and suburban neighborhoods.

At the other end of the spectrum, a large group of young people (about 21%) is relatively disengaged from all media use. This Disengaged group only tends to use social networking at an average level as well as the Internet for schoolwork. Otherwise, this group tends to stay away from TV, the Internet, and other forms of media. At the same time, the group is also physically active with above average levels of participation in sports. Nevertheless, the group also reports higher levels of hopelessness than youth comparable in age and gender (41%).

A not insignificant group of young people (about 14%) is still relatively dependent on TV without as much access to the Internet as others. Not surprisingly, this TV Only group tends to be more rural, where access is still relatively limited, and to live in neighborhoods with lower median incomes. It is also relatively low in hopelessness compared to others (28%).

A final group (about 14% in size) does not use the Internet at very high levels but scores high on indices of online communication uses, such as social networking and blogging sites. This Online Communicator group, not surprisingly, is also heavily involved in extracurricular activities. It also reports lower levels of hopelessness (34%).

Changes in Media Use Over Time

“Although parents may be concerned about their children’s media use,” noted Romer, “the good news is that what a young person does one year is often not likely to be the same a year later.”

Despite the fact that the types of media use remain stable, membership in the groups is quite fluid. For example, we find that only 12% of the Heavy Internet/TV group remains in that cluster one year later. This is perhaps reassuring in that this type of media use is most disruptive of healthy adolescent adjustment. Similarly, only 12% of the Heavy TV group remains in that cluster one year later. 

The most stable groups over time are the TV Only (63%) and the Information Seekers (48%).  The high degree of movement across media patterns suggests that young people are still experimenting with their preferences for media.

Despite the large amounts of movement between the media types, there was relatively little change in overall levels of media use across the two years of the study. As seen in Table 2 below, mean levels of reported daily TV and Internet use changed little with a small increase in Internet and decline in TV over time. Nevertheless, social networking activity increased with a jump from 51% to 61% who said they use these platforms most days of the week. Also, video game use increased with 77% saying they have used them compared with 68% the year before.  About a quarter of the panel said they played video games most days of the week in 2009.

Media Use May Reflect Problems Rather Than Create Them

It is important to note that one cannot attribute outcomes, such as mental health status, to the use of any or all of the media that characterize the six different groups. The groupings show that young people can be classified by the way they use media. But the groupings only show associations with those media use patterns. They do not imply that those uses caused the association. For example, youth who are depressed may gravitate to TV use or the Internet as a means of coping with their problems. Thus, although media use may be a marker of underlying problems, it may not be a cause.

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