Research News

Is Day-to-Day Teen Depression the Same for Boys and Girls?

IPR psychobiologist Emma Adam discovers gender matters

sad adolescent
Boys and girls experience emotions—and depression—differently, IPR's Emma Adam discovers.

As if puberty wasn’t bad enough, boys and girls also have to cope with depression as they enter adolescence—the rates of which rise sharply around age 13. Girls are especially likely to suffer from more pronounced depressive symptoms, such as sad moods and low self-esteem.

Though this gender gap is well documented, researchers have paid little attention to how depressive symptoms affect adolescents’ day-to-day emotional lives, and how the daily experiences of depression differ between girls and boys. IPR developmental psychobiologist Emma Adam investigates these questions in a recent Journal of Adolescence article, with her colleagues including former IPR research assistants Allison Frost, now a doctoral student at Stony Brook University, and Lindsay Till Hoyt, now at Fordham University.

The researchers examined data collected over four years from 353 adolescents, aged 11–18, as part of the Contemporary Families and Experiences of Work study. Prompted by the beeping of a watch, the adolescents reported their thoughts, feelings, and activities in a diary at eight moments each day for one week. They also rated how often they had experienced certain depressive symptoms, such as disturbed sleep or appetite, and certain moods, for example being relaxed or frustrated, throughout the week.

Emma Adam
Emma Adam

The diary study is what makes these data unique, Adam said. “It’s not retrospective. It’s not a questionnaire. We’re studying the context within which these emotions are happening, and we’re capturing these experiences moment by moment multiple times throughout the day.”

While the male and female study participants were equally likely to experience symptoms of depression, they experienced emotions differently during the course of the day. Girls reported feeling stronger positive and negative emotions in general. Depressed girls were also more likely than boys to report feeling strong negative emotions after interacting with other people.

The study results “certainly mean something for intervention,” according to Adam. The connection between social interactions and negative emotions in depressed girls could be vital in determining the best course of treatment. Girls, in particular, might benefit from being less reactive in their interpersonal relationships, so this “might be an important focus for treatment,” Adam concluded.

Emma Adam is professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow.

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