Just as you might have suspected, listening to OK Computer on loop may have something to do with depression. But scientists have discovered a surprising upper: books.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied 106 teens, 46 of whom were clinically depressed, over five weekends, and surveyed them repeatedly on their media use. The kids who listened to the most music were the most likely to be depressed; kids who read the most were the least likely. Other forms of media — TV, movies, magazines, video games, and the Internet — had no significant effect. Sorry, Facebook depression.
Lead study author Dr. Brian Primack says, "At this point, it is not clear whether depressed people begin to listen to more music to escape, or whether listening to large amounts of music can lead to depression, or both." It's also not clear why books and music should have such opposite effects. Are kids who read a lot more likely to have close ties to parents, teachers, and school in general, and thus less likely to be depressed? Or do depressed kids quickly leave behind literature for the tender embraces of their iPods? Whatever the case, it's not totally surprising that music doesn't seem to act as a pick-me-up for teens — while happy tunes can lift your mood, there's nothing like a bunch of Radiohead (or whatever sad kids are listening to these days) to widen and deepen your feelings of existential despair. After all, only Thom Yorke knows what it's like to be an alien robot weirdo in a world of happy normal human beings, and he is famous and does not know you and will never come and tell you how awesome your songs are, no matter how badly you want him to. The combination of total kinship and total inaccessibility that comes with having a favorite band can be painful for an adult, and even worse for a kid who still hasn't figured out his or her place in the world.
So is reading better? Having a favorite writer is a little like having a favorite rock star, in that even though she might be The Only One Who Understands You, she's probably never going to be your friend. At the same time, many writers, at least of fiction, are less closely identified with their subjects than singers are with their songs. You don't really feel you know Charlotte Brontë when you read Jane Eyre — you feel you know Jane, and since she's fictional, you actually do know everything there is to know about her. You're as close to her as you can possibly be, and in a way, that's satisfying.
I don't mean to say that feelings of closeness are the only — or even the most important — things we can get out of art. And I don't think art's highest goal is to make us happy — my music library is so dripping with misery that it sounds like a party mix for a funeral. But I do think that for people who feel confused by and isolated from humanity — that is, teenagers — there's something to be said for reading. David Foster Wallace famously said that writing should make people "become less alone inside." And while sometimes you want to revel in your alienation, sometimes a little literary companionship is exactly what you need.
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