Children's Mental Health | Natural Health Blog

Date: 07/05/2011    Written by: Beth Levine

Teenagers, Depression, and Music

Albert Einstein once said, "I get most joy in life out of music."

And while that might seem like a beautiful sentiment, it doesn't necessarily jibe with the latest studies. According to new research, the more time teens spend listening to music, the more likely they are to be depressed.1

The study, which took place at the University of Pittsburgh, examined the relationship between depression in teenagers and the types of activities on which they spend the most spare time.  The scientists gave 106 teenage volunteers cell phones, then used them to call the kids as often as 60 times during an eight-week period.  The teens were asked to report what they were doing whenever a call was made.  Close to half of the teenagers involved in the trial had received a diagnosis of clinical depression by a psychiatrist.

The reports on what the teenagers were spending their time doing was nothing surprising to either the researchers or parents of teens, since the vast majority of the teens spent a good chunk of their days absorbed in media.  Television, computers, texting, and listening to MP3 players were the most popular activities.  The most common way to while away the days was watching TV or movies, accounting for 26 percent of their time.  Interestingly, there didn't seem to be much of a correlation between time spent watching TV and depression among teens, which contradicts the findings of previous studies.

The relationship between listening to music and depression, however, was very strong.  Although the teenagers only spent an average of 9 percent of their time listening to music, those who spent the most time listening were found to be eight times more likely to be depressed than those who didn't listen as often. It should be noted that the study did not break down the types of music that teens listened to and whether sonatas (as if many teens listen to sonatas) produced different results when compared to gangsta rap.

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that the music is causing depression in these kids. In fact, the researchers made no attempt to identify cause and effect. The reason for the study was simply that depression is a major health problem for teenagers, so the researchers thought it was worth looking into. A better explanation of cause and effect in this case, according to the researchers, is that the teens are seeking comfort in the music and choosing an activity that really requires no effort on their part. (So it looks like Albert Einstein can rest in peace.)  At the other end of the spectrum were the teenagers who spent the most time reading -- which, sadly, only occurred a paltry 0.2 percent of the time.  But the ones who were the most frequent readers were ten times less likely to be depressed as those who read the least.  That could be because reading expends more mental energy than listening to music or watching TV -- which might be indicative of a teen who is correspondingly more proactive, rather than passive, about the circumstances they confront in life.

This is not really good news, because we all know that teens spend a lot more time plugged into an Ipod than they do with a good book or even a newspaper.  And to make matters worse, a 2010 study at five universities found that teens and young adults are now far more depressed, unstable, and narcissistic than they were 70 years ago.2

Researchers analyzed psychological data compiled between 1938 and 2007 on students who took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a personality test that diagnoses mental illness and personality structure.  According to the results, kids today are far more troubled than they were back in 1938, during the great Depression no less!  Six times as many youths today test as clinically depressed compared to back then (six percent versus one percent), and six times as many register as anxious (five percent in 1938, but a whopping 31 percent now).

Since we're not likely to be prying our teenagers away from all things media-related any time soon, we may just have to be extra vigilant as parents.  Maybe their music-listening habits can be a tool for helping us determine when they are getting depressed. And remember, it's not "necessarily" the listening to music that's the problem, but rather the amount of listening and the reason for the listening -- passivity -- that count. Given that, you might want to see if you can get your teens involved in some kind of regular physical activity. And in fact, there are studies that show that exercise works better than pharmaceutical drugs when it comes to relieving depression.


1 Primack, Brian A.; Silk, Jennifer S; DeLozier, Christian R.; et al. "Using Ecological Momentary Assessment to Determine Media Use by Individuals With and Without Major Depressive Disorder." Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. April 2011.  American Medical Association. 23 June 2011. .
2 Twenge, Jean M.; Gentile, Brittany; DeWall, C. Nathan; et al. "Birth Cohort Increases in Psychopathology Among Young Americans, 1938-2007: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the MMPI." Science Direct. March 2010.  Elsevier B.V. 24 June 2011. <>.


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    Submitted by Otto on
    July 12, 2011 - 4:16am

    It is idiotic to come to any conclusions without analysing the type of music the teenagers were listening to. Perhaps they should have run a study comparing classical music listening and heavy metal.
    I find listening to classical music greatly elevates ones mood

    Submitted by Katrina on
    July 14, 2011 - 12:10am

    Yes, but just because you find classical to elevate your mood does not mean that it does the same for anyone else or even that this is the only genre that does so. Certainly, many teens (although I do like Mozart... a lot) don't particularly enjoy classical music and, therefore, would not have their mood positively influenced. Besides, there are a lot of genres and sub-genres between the two types of music you mentioned.
    Katrina Flinn, aged 16

    Submitted by eddie on
    July 19, 2011 - 3:05pm

    Depression in kids is fine and nothing to worry about. Depression,in many forms, has been around as long as man walked this planet.In the majority of cases it makes people stop and think a little more. Helps them become a fully integrated ,thinking member of the human species. Is that not better than living out their lives as mere instinctive,reactionary beings,without a capacity to think? Yes, it may cause them to suffer a little. Were we not put on this earth for just that reason,to suffer and grow in mind and spirit? Then, when we cast off this cumbersome body,we can carry on and live another life in another dimention.As gods little children we are entittled to speak to god through the power of thought. To those of you who understand better it is your duty to help the youth to understand.Not enought is spoken about anxiety, depression and voices in our minds. Things, which are perfectly normal in a growing human being,and instead are frowned upon as diseases and sicknessess. When we come to recognize the voice in our head,we look upon it as our guardian angel, rather than a deamon from hell. Then we grow to understand the workings of the mind,the thought process and our connection to other human beings. Depression needs to be seen as a possitive progression and not negative.

    Submitted by newport on
    August 11, 2011 - 4:43am

    Awsome post.. Psychologists today use many different approaches to treating depression. For the more severe cases, the most typical outpatient technique is to blend antidepressant medication with psychotherapy. All of these drugs have minor unpleasant side effects, but those for whom the medications bring relief from depression are usually glad to tolerate them. Psychotherapy should always accompany pharmacological treatment. As the antidepressant improves the underlying moods, the reasons for the despondency must be explored, maladaptive patterns examined, and efforts to make necessary changes supported.

    Submitted by new port on
    August 16, 2011 - 3:09am

    Awsome post... Unfortunately there many people that suffer from a degree of depression that seems unbearable. Perhaps they don’t seek help, and therefore never get the chance to help themselves. Even so, to think of killing oneself is a very drastic step and most people need another factor to push them over the edge, without which they will remain resigned to their feelings and continue to suffer in silence.

    Submitted by scott on
    July 14, 2014 - 6:49pm

    The bigger the headphones, the more ignorant they become.

    They are self sabatoging and they can't even focus on listening to parents because music is so important to them.

    They are also the young adults that complain about the radio and must have their own playlist while driving. Hip hop, rock, it's all the same annoying crap.

    Music does not define who I am and I am tired of immature obsessions over some genre.

    Submitted by Meenah on
    October 12, 2016 - 6:09pm
    Luton ,

    This study leaves me with a strange feeling, and I don't entirely agree with the very last paragraph which links music directly to depression. From a scientific point of view, this might make sense. Listening to music releases dopamine the 'happy' chemical in our brain which regulates positive moods and such, thus listening to music for long periods of time would give longer and larger doses of dopamine to the brain. So when not listening to music the listener is not getting as much as normal, leading to a more depressed mindset as a lack of dopamine can result in symptoms of depression.

    However, to say that because this generation (teens in the 20011-16) is more depressed than those of forty years ago could also not be a factor of the music, but of how depression is being diagnosed now compared to forty years ago. A lot of mental illnesses seem 'more common' now only because of the way the diagnosis process is changing and making it easier to find and help care for.

    And think about the enormous economic, social and personal stress teens and young adults (like myself) are under from the current society and industry. Examples such as jobs/careers and having to live up to impossible standards set by a wealth bias society. This can also cause forms of depression from not feeling adequate enough to perform or keep up with such demands.

    So before people correlate a behaviour which has been in culture since forever with the growing awareness of mental illness such as depression, you need to consider the many other factors!

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