TORONTO, July 21 (UPI) -- The number of students who feel depression or anxiety has increased significantly in the last year, with researchers suggesting technology and social media may be playing a role in the rapid increase, according to surveys with Canadian students.
The Center for Addiction and Mental Health found in recent surveys that one-third of Canadian students feel psychological distress, and girls are twice as likely as boys to be distressed, numbers representing jumps in the rate that surprised researchers.
The pre-teen and teen years already are known to be a rocky emotional time, but researchers suggest lower levels of physical activity and increased time spent using technology -- including social media and video games -- may be playing a role in higher rates of psychological distress.
"While we can't say for certain what is causing this distress, it's important for parents, schools and health care providers to be aware of what young people are telling us about their mental health," Dr. Robert Mann, a senior scientist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health and lead researcher on the new study, said in a press release. "Our research indicates that the later teen years into the twenties is the peak period of stress for many people."
For the study, published online by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, researchers surveyed 10,426 students in grades seven to 12 for the 2015 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey.
Among the most significant shifts is a 10 percent increase in students feeling moderate to serious psychological distress, moving from 24 percent in 2013 to 34 percent in 2015. When asked if they'd felt nervous, hopeless or worthless at any point in the four weeks before the survey, 46 percent of girls say yes, compared to 23 percent of boys.
Although many students reported feeling recent distress, 17 percent of students considered their mental state to be fair or poor -- a six percent increase since 2007 -- and 21 percent of students had visited a mental health professional in the previous year, a 9 percent increase since 1999.
Later teen years were reported to be more difficult -- more than 40 percent of students in grades 11 and 12 said they'd felt recent distress.
Although they do not link mental distress to technology use, the researchers note 63 percent of students reporting three or more hours per day of free time in front of some type of screen and 86 percent of students visiting social media websites every day.
Technology use, combined with only 22 percent of students meeting recommended daily physical activity guidelines -- despite 66 percent rating their health as excellent or good -- may have some type of role, researchers say, as mental health has been shown in previous studies to benefit from physical activity.
The propensity of cyperbullying and potential for poor influence on other mental health issues of social media sites also could play a role in increased mental distress, the researchers suggest.
"At CAMH we see young people who are on the more severe end of problem tech use, many of whom have pre-existing depression and anxiety," said Lisa Pont, a social worker who works with children and parents to manage technology use. "Many youth are heavy users of technology and are able to keep good balance in their lives. But for those who develop problems, it is important that the underlying and concurrent issues are addressed so that healthier tech use is achievable."