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

  • After a two-decade decline, suicide rates rose steadily from 2010 onwards
  • A new study by San Diego University shows that mirrors the surge in social media use
  • The same team showed that after 13 Reasons Why screened on Netflix in March there was an increase in Google searches for 'how to commit suicide' 
  • Experts warn TV and social media culture put more pressure on teens than we acknowledge 

Social media use may have driven the increase in suicide rates among US teens, a new analysis suggests.  

Suicide rates for teens rose steadily between 2010 and 2015 despite two decades of decline, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

A new analysis by San Diego University shows that, while we cannot know for certain, there is a distinct correlation between suicide rates and the surge in social media use.  

They lay bare how the boom in cyberbullying, and social media posts depicting 'perfect' lives may be taking a toll on teens' mental health, has mirrored a spike in depression among young people. 

The report comes just months after the same team show a spike in Google searches for 'how to commit suicide' after the release of Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which controversially depicted a teen girl's depression and eventual suicide. 

A new analysis suggests that increased social media use could be one factor contributing to a rise in teen suicide (file image)

'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, behaviors 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 devices including smartphones for at least five hours daily more than doubled, from 8 percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 2015. These teens were 70 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts or actions than those who reported one hour of daily use.
  • In 2015, 36 percent of all teens reported feeling desperately sad or hopeless, or thinking about, planning or attempting suicide, up from 32 percent in 2009. For girls, the rates were higher - 45 percent in 2015 versus 40 percent in 2009.
  • In 2009, 58 percent of 12th grade girls used social media every day or nearly every day; by 2015, 87 percent used social media every day or nearly every day. They were 14 percent 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 new 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.

The same San Diego researchers released a report this summer saying they believed the recent increase in suicide-related searches on Google was triggered by the show 13 Reasons Why. Pictured: CDC data on suicide rates, marking the recent increase 

'Parents don't really get that,' Strasburger said.

The same San Diego researchers released a report this summer saying they believed the recent increase in suicide-related searches on Google was triggered by the show 13 Reasons Why.

There were 1.5 million more suicide-related searches than expected during the 19 days following the series' release, according to data crunched by the San Diego team. 

The Selena Gomez-produced show, which debuted on March 31, was heavily criticized for 'glamorizing' suicide. In the final scene, the 17-year-old protagonist Hannah kills herself in a graphic scene in a bathtub.

While the show's writers insist they aimed to raise awareness about mental illness, experts warn internet searches about suicide have become more practical than informative.

The researchers say the findings should be a red flag to the movie industry to take greater steps to prevent suicide ideation, such as including hotline numbers or removing graphic scenes. 

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