Do smartphones and social media lead to adolescent suicide?

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Are smartphones and screen media behind the rise in adolescent suicide and dysphoria—or are economic and parental pressures just as likely contributors?

Two teens lay on couch with smartphones looking bored

The recent increases in adolescent suicide in the United States have raised concerns about the effects of heavy online screen-media use. Some researchers have suggested that the elevated suicide rate and depression among adolescents and young adults reflect growing social isolation and other adverse effects caused by social media and online networking.

In a chapter of the new book “Digital Technology: Advances in Research and Applications,” Daniel Romer, the research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, reviews the evidence for the screen-dysphoria hypothesis. He finds that “the rise in social media use by young people is unlikely to have triggered the rise in suicide that started in 2009 and that has produced the gains that have persisted since that time.”

Instead, Romer suggests that economic stresses since the “Great Recession” of 2008 combined with “intensive parenting” that puts pressure on adolescents to succeed academically may be as likely contributors to increased stress on young people. “The economic trends provide a strong alternative explanation for the rise in suicide since 2008,” he writes, although he adds that “the most recent rises in 2016-2017 defy easy explanation.”

In the chapter “Screen Use and Suicide in U.S. Youth: What Is the Evidence?”, Romer notes that suicide has been increasing among young people since 2008, and it has been tempting to attribute this to the growth of smartphone use and social media in particular. A review of likely factors affecting the mental health of young people, however, shows that on the whole adolescents are healthier today than they were two decades ago. There is less drug use and there are lower teen pregnancy rates and fewer road deaths. In this context, the rise in suicide is puzzling.

Read more at Annenberg Public Policy Center.

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