Teen suicide is at a two-decade high, even surpassing rates of homicide.
- Smartphones and social media seem to create feelings of loneliness.
- Parents should be mindful of how much time their kids spend on their phone.
For the first time in over two decades, more teenagers are committing suicide than homicide.
And according to research presented in a recent article in The Atlantic, excerpted from a book written by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, smartphones may deserve a lot of the blame.
“As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another,” Twenge wrote, “and more likely to kill themselves.”
Over the past decade, psychologists have come to see a picture in which young, developing brains are pitted against the power of brightly-coloured notifications, relentless pocket vibrations, and addicting apps. The byproduct has been an increase in disorders such as depression and anxiety, which sometimes turn fatal.
Twenge’s research has indicated that while suicide rates aren’t the highest they have ever been — that peak came in the early 1990s, before smartphones emerged — the proliferation of screen-based devices and social media have fundamentally changed how people interact for the worse.
On the one hand, social media allows teens (and anyone, for that matter) to communicate with lots of people at once. But as MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle has noted, that communication doesn’t lead to connection. Something is getting lost, and psychology experts have surmised it’s a feeling of closeness, or comfort.
In her recent piece, Twenge cites research that found 27% of eighth-graders who frequently use social media showed signs of depression, while the rate was about 12% for kids who went outside or got involved in their community. In addition, kids who spent at least three hours on some kind of device were significantly more likely to show suicidal tendencies, such as researching ways to kill themselves, Twenge went on.
Loneliness seems to be a major factor in smartphones leading to worsening mental health.
“Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly — on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook,” Twenge wrote. “Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it.”
In the days before social media, not getting invited to a party still felt bad. But the bad feeling went away within a day or two as people gradually stopped talking about the prior night’s events. With apps that document every party happening in real-time, and preserve those memories forever, there is never a shortage of reminders that you were left out.
Teens seem to lack a healthy outlet for dealing with those bad feelings. The effects of loneliness have left them emotionally ill-equipped to seek out resources that might improve their mental health. Instead, they bear their psychic pain in private.
Twenge advocates parents taking a more active role in limiting their teens’ smartphone use, particularly if kids can’t help themselves.
“The average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices,” she wrote. “Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits.”