Invisible Risk Factors for Mental Health Problems in Teenagers

Risk of Mental Health - White River Academy

Parents who discover their children engaging in risky behavior, such as drinking alcohol or using drugs, will usually step in and try to stop it. However, there is some behavior that parents do not always recognize as harmful that can still lead to mental health problems in teenagers: a sedentary lifestyle, a reduction in sleep, and spending too much time watching TV.

Parents may not be surprised to learn that research shows that watching too much TV or being too sedentary can be harmful. The health concerns of a sedentary lifestyle are a common topic of discussion. The childhood obesity epidemic is largely blamed on unhealthy food choices and a rise in playing video games, watching television, and using computers. Although most parents know that getting their children away from the television or video game console and moving around is important for their physical health, many of them are not aware of the damage it can do to their mental health.

Spending a significant amount of time engaged with television or video games combined with a lack of exercise and poor sleep habits contributes to an increased risk of mental health problems in teenagers, according to a new study published in the journal World Psychiatry.

Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden analyzed the risk of patterns of behavior in 12,395 adolescents aged between 14 and 16 from 11 different European countries, chosen from random schools. Participants filled out a questionnaire called the Global School-based Student Health Survey (GSHS), which identified nine risk behaviors. These included drinking alcohol at least twice a week, using illegal drugs at least three times, smoking more than 5 cigarettes a day, sleeping less than 6 hours a night, being overweight, being underweight, engaging in physical activity less than once a week (which correlates to a sedentary lifestyle), using media (including TV, video games, or the Internet) for more than 5 hours a day not for school or work, and truancy issues (skipping school at least once a week without permission).

In order to find the link between these behaviors and mental illness, including depression and anxiety, as well as self-destructive behaviors and conduct problems, the students were also asked to complete the Beck Depression Inventory, the Zung Self-Rating Anxiety Scale, the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, the Paykel Suicide Scale, and the Deliberate Self Harm Inventory so that the psychological health of the participants could be assessed.

The researchers found three different risk groups. About 13 percent of the participants fell into the “high-risk” group, which consisted of students who scored high in all nine categories of risky behaviors defined in the GSHS. The low risk group, or those who never, or very rarely, engaged in these behaviors, made up 58 percent of the group.

The researchers were surprised to find a third group, which they called the invisible risk group, consisting of 29 percent of the adolescents in the study. This is the first study to identify this group and its risk factors, which included excessively watching TV or playing video games, inadequate amounts of sleep, and a sedentary lifestyle. This invisible risk group had similar levels of mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts, subthreshold (having symptoms but not enough to meet criteria for a diagnosis) depression, anxiety, and depression, as those in the high risk group.

These mental health problems could develop during adolescence, but some of this behavior could lead to more significant problems that develop as the teenagers become adults. The study found that the risk behaviors and symptoms increased with age, which has also been found in previous studies. The researchers also noticed a significant gender difference. The most common risk factor for mental health problems in boys was alcohol and drug use, while for girls it was reduced sleep and a sedentary lifestyle.

This study adds further information about the best modes of early prevention and intervention for mental health problems. It is important for parents to be vigilant not just about high risk behavior like substance abuse, but also behavior patterns including insufficient sleep, sedentary lifestyle, and media addiction. Finding a way to encourage children and teenagers to balance the amount of time spent in front of television, playing video games, and going online with going outside and being active is important not just for their physical health, but for their mental health as well.

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