It may not come as too much of a surprise that more teens who use substances experience mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, than people who don't engage in those activities. But a new study has identified some other, more innocuous-seeming lifestyle habits that also seem to raise psychiatric risks.
Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet found that there is an "invisible risk" group of teens who are at a higher risk of psychiatric conditions, including anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, if they possess three characteristics: high media use (TV, Internet and video games for non-school or work related purposes), low exercise levels and low sleep.
The "invisible risk" group can be characterized as "adolescents who spend an excessive amount of time watching TV, being on the Internet or playing videogames, including going to sleep late in order to prolong the use of these media activities and who, perhaps as a direct consequence, neglect other healthy activities such as sports," the researchers explained in the World Psychiatry study.
The study included 12,000 teens from 11 different countries in Europe. The researchers grouped the students by their engagement in nine different risk factors: excessive alcohol use, illegal drug use, heavy smoking, reduced sleep, overweight, underweight, sedentary behavior, high media use and truancy.
The high risk group had high scores for all the risk factors, and included 13.2 percent of the teens in the study. The low-risk group scored low for most of the factors, and included 57.8 percent of the teens. However, the "invisible risk" group, which scored high on digital media use and low on exercise and sleep, included 29 percent of the teens.
The researchers looked at the prevalence of psychiatric symptoms, including peer problems, suicide ideation or attempts, depression, anxiety and hyperactivity, among each group. More teens in the high-risk group experienced these symptoms than the teens in the low-risk group. But interestingly, researchers found that a high number of teens in the "invisible risk" group also experienced these symptoms.
"Adult observers (e.g., parents, teachers and mental health professionals) do not generally perceive these behaviours [of the invisible risk group] as particularly harmful or reasons for concern," researchers wrote in the study. "Nevertheless, the high- and the invisible-risk groups have a very similar prevalence of depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms and suicidal thoughts. In comparison with pupils in the high-risk group, those in the invisible-risk group have a higher prevalence of emotional symptoms and peer problems but a lower prevalence of conduct problems and hyperactivity."