(NBC) - It'd be difficult to find a teen who doesn't know his or her way around the internet. But now there's evidence that too much time in front of a computer might lead to serious mental health problems.
Like pep rallies and pimples, the internet has become a fixture in the world of teenagers. There is research to be done online for school work, not to mention the huge popularity of social networking. But when the 'net is the only social scene a teen has, experts say it's a sign of a serious problem.
"Whether you're limiting your social interactions or it's impacting your school work, or your job your interactions with your family, that's when we start thinking something is looking more pathological," said Dr. Margaret Richards, a pediatric psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
In fact, "pathological" or "excessive" use of the internet may lead to depression in teens, according to a new study. Researchers say the teenagers in their study were mentally healthy at the beginning of the study. But those who became addicted to using the internet were 2 ½ times more likely to become depressed within a matter of months.
What's unclear is which came first - the internet, or the risk for depression. Researchers did not ask the teens whether they had a family history of mental illness.
"So it's a little hard to know if it's the internet impacting depression or if depression also impacts internet use," Dr. Richards said.
Child psychologists say teens should be limited to about an hour of recreational screen time a day. That time includes mindlessly surfing the net, social networking, video games, TV and movies.
"We really need to make sure that they're still involved in other activities like sports or clubs or going out with their friends so that they're still getting that social interaction," said Dr. Richards.
And not social isolation.
Of the 1,000 teens in the new study, just 6 percent were classified as having "moderate pathological use" of the internet.
This study is from researchers at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China. It's published as an early release online in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/archives journals.