Rise in teen sui­cide, so­cial me­dia co­in­cide; is there link?

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - PERSPECTIVES - BY LINDSEY TANNER

An in­crease in sui­cide rates among U.S. teens oc­curred at the same time so­cial me­dia use surged and a new anal­y­sis sug­gests there may be a link.

Sui­cide rates for teens rose be­tween 2010 and 2015 after they had de­clined for nearly two decades, ac­cord­ing to data from the fed­eral Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion. Why the rates went up isn’t known.

The study doesn’t an­swer the ques­tion, but it sug­gests that one fac­tor could be ris­ing so­cial me­dia use. Re­cent teen sui­cides have been blamed on cy­ber­bul­ly­ing, and so­cial me­dia posts de­pict­ing “per­fect” lives may be tak­ing a toll on teens’ men­tal health, re­searchers say.

“After hours of scrolling through In­sta­gram feeds, I just feel worse about my­self be­cause I feel left out,” said Caitlin Hearty, a 17-year-old Lit­tle­ton, Colorado, high school se­nior who helped or­ga­nize an of­fline cam­paign last month after sev­eral lo­cal teen sui­cides.

“No one posts the bad things they’re go­ing through,” said Chloe Schilling, also 17, who helped with the cam­paign, in which hun­dreds of teens agreed not to use the in­ter­net or so­cial me­dia for one month.

The study’s au­thors looked at CDC sui­cide re­ports from 2009-15 and re­sults of two sur­veys given to U.S. high school stu­dents to mea­sure at­ti­tudes, be­haviours and in­ter­ests. About half a mil­lion teens ages 13 to 18 were in­volved. They were asked about use of elec­tronic de­vices, so­cial me­dia, print me­dia, tele­vi­sion and time spent with friends. Ques­tions about mood in­cluded fre­quency of feel­ing hope­less and con­sid­er­ing or at­tempt­ing sui­cide.

The re­searchers didn’t ex­am­ine cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing in­di­vid­ual sui­cides. Dr. Chris­tine Moutier, chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer at the Amer­i­can Foun­da­tion for Sui­cide Preven­tion, said the study pro­vides weak ev­i­dence for a pop­u­lar the­ory and that many fac­tors in­flu­ence teen sui­cide.

The study was pub­lished Tues­day in the jour­nal Clin­i­cal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Science.

Data high­lighted in the study in­clude:

Teens use of elec­tronic de-vices in­clud­ing smart­phones for at least five hours daily more than dou­bled, from 8 per cent in 2009 to 19 per cent in 2015. These teens were 70 per cent more likely to have sui­ci­dal thoughts or ac­tions than those who re­ported one hour of daily use.

In 2015, 36 per cent of all teens re­ported feel­ing des­per­ately sad or hope­less, or think­ing about, plan­ning or at­tempt­ing sui­cide, up from 32 per cent in 2009. For girls, the rates were higher — 45 per cent in 2015 ver­sus 40 per cent in 2009.

In 2009, 58 per cent of 12th grade girls used so­cial me­dia ev­ery day or nearly ev­ery day; by 2015, 87 per cent used so­cial me­dia ev­ery day or nearly ev­ery day. They were 14 per cent more likely to be de­pressed than those who used so­cial me­dia less fre­quently.

“We need to stop think­ing of smart­phones as harm­less,” said study au­thor Jean Twenge, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at San Diego State Univer­sity who stud­ies gen­er­a­tional trends. “There’s a ten­dency to say, ‘Oh, teens are just com­mu­ni­cat­ing with their friends.’ Mon­i­tor­ing kids’ use of smart­phones and so­cial me­dia is im­por­tant, and so is set­ting rea­son­able lim­its, she said.

Dr. Vic­tor Stras­burger, a teen medicine spe­cial­ist at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico, said the study only im­plies a con­nec­tion be­tween teen sui­cides, de­pres­sion and so­cial me­dia. It shows the need for more re­search on new tech­nol­ogy, Stras­burger said.

He noted that skep­tics who think so­cial me­dia is be­ing un­fairly crit­i­cized com­pare it with so-called vices of past gen­er­a­tions: “When dime-store books came out, when comic books came out, when tele­vi­sion came out, when rock and roll first started, peo­ple were say­ing ‘This is the end of the world.”’

With its im­me­di­acy, anonymity, and po­ten­tial for bul­ly­ing, so­cial me­dia has a unique po­ten­tial for caus­ing real harm, he said.

“Par­ents don’t re­ally get that,” Stras­burger said.

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