Since 2010 the number of teens (ages 13-18) who committed suicide increased a whopping 31%, and researchers are increasingly convinced that this increase is related to the use of smartphones.
Specifically, a new study demonstrates that the likelihood of suicide or suicide attempts correlates directly with the amount of smartphone usage – meaning, the more a teen uses the phone, the greater the risk of depression, anxiety, and self-harm.
Using data on adolescent thinking and behavior dating back to 1991, researchers from Florida State University (FSU) and San Diego State University (SDSU) found a remarkable increase in the number of teens reporting mental health issues during the same stretch of time that smartphones were becoming increasingly commonplace in their lives.
“After scouring several large surveys for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone,” wrote Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at SDSU and co-author of the study.
Smartphone Usage Tied to Mental Distress
Of particular note was the way smartphone usage was tied to mental health issues. Nearly half of teens (48%) who spent at least five hours per day on a digital device thought about or attempted suicide. That figure dropped to 28% for teens who spent an hour or less on screens.
This is particularly concerning given the enormous uptick in rates of depression and unhappiness in kids. The suicide rate for girls reached a 40-year high in 2015, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 15 million kids suffer from a “diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder in a given year.”
“There is a concerning relationship between excessive screen time and risk for death by suicide, depression, suicidal ideation, and suicidal attempts,” said FSU professor Thomas Joiner, one of the study’s authors. “All of those mental health issues are very serious. I think it’s something parents should ponder.”
Just as important, the study’s authors found that teens who spent time with friends, classmates, and family members or who were involved in sports and other extracurricular activities were far less likely to report being depressed.
Less Screen Time Equates to Happier Kids
The study represents further validation for the work of Twenge and others, many of whom have been warning about the dangerous influence of smartphones. Discussing her book on the same topic released in August, Twenge matter-of-factly stated that “it’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen [those born after 1995] as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.”
The good news, says Twenge and other researchers, is that smartphones don’t necessarily need to be shunned or deemed unsafe to use. Instead, parents need to ensure their kids’ use of the devices is limited and that they are involved in other activities: art, camp, athletics, music. Recognize, too, that many tech leaders don’t even allow – or severely limit – their kids’ access to digital screens.
Equally important, these same experts remind us that kids need to engage in lots of face-to-face time with family and friends. Or better still, take the lead and get your kids involved in positive activities – sports, theatre, camp, art, etc. – where human engagement is at a premium and the use of digital devices is forbidden or strictly curbed.
“It’s totally unrealistic and probably not even good to think kids will stop using screens,” said FSU’s Joiner. “It comes down to moderation. Parents should try to make non-screen activities as attractive as possible because a lot of them are attractive. It is fun to hang out with your friends or play basketball. Just remind kids those things are available, and they’re just as fun as trading texts. That’s the bottom line.”