Teenage suicide has reached alarming rates in the past 10 years, and suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10-24 (UC Davis, 2021). The CDC recently reported that emergency room visits for attempted suicide among teenage girls in 2021 were up 51.6% when compared to 2019. There are several potential causes for this increase, but one of the most controversial is the time teenagers spend using social media.
Humans are social creatures. Getting along well with others has helped us survive by forming groups, sharing skills and resources, and helping each other when needed. Like other companies who sell addictive products, social media companies develop applications, features, and formulas designed to encourage us to habitually engage with their platform. There is a reward system in the brain that gives a pleasurable feeling when we connect with others (i.e., dopamine is released). This system is also triggered by looking at attractive people, watching fun videos, and seeing novel things. Then, the algorithms learn what we like and suggest new things that are similar (but not exactly the same) in order to keep us clicking, swiping, and liking. This activates the same reward system in your brain that is triggered by alcohol, heroin, and meth. Likewise, there is a “crash” when we stop staring at the screen at bedtime and all that dopamine goes away.
Social media use has been found to negatively affect teens by distracting them, disrupting their sleep, and exposing them to rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people's lives, and peer pressure (Mayo Clinic, 2021). This is particularly true for girls. In a 10-year study of social media use and suicidality, BYU determined that while social media had little effect on suicide risk for boys, teenage girls who spent 2 to 3 hours daily on social media at age 13 were at a higher risk for suicide when they became young adults; one reason for this difference was that girls and women were found to be more relationally attuned and more sensitive to posts not being well-received and to making more comparisons with their online peers (Allen, 2021).
Interestingly, teenage cyberbullying offenders (i.e., those who have used technology to harass, humiliate, or threaten others) are 1.5 times more likely to report having attempted suicide than adolescents who were not offenders of cyberbullying (NIH, 2022). This is an indication that young people who are feeling upset, angry, or frustrated may turn to social media to take out those negative feelings on others. Further, victims of cyberbullying often experience an increased risk of suicide due to increased feelings of isolation, instability, and hopelessness, especially for those victims who have preexisting emotional, psychological, or environmental stressors.
While social media and cyberbullying will impact different people in different ways, House (2020) indicated that some teens with pre-existing mental health disorders are drawn to “an immersive atmosphere of depressive messages and images that act as an enticement to self-harm and suicide.” Social media opens the world to your child, and it opens your child to the world. Adults who enjoy manipulating, provoking, or encouraging bad behavior in teens can connect with minors under the guise of being a teenager themselves. They can influence thinking, share links to negative content, and even try to meet in person. These are just a few of the ways in which social media can be dangerous.
However, young people have also indicated that social media has helped them express who they are more fully and anonymously, sharing their true thoughts and opinions without worrying about getting in trouble for them as they might in school or at home. Time will tell if it is possible to enhance the benefits of social media while minimizing the dangers—a topic hotly debated between those calling for change in social media policy and others who advocate for the preservation of free speech. If you are a parent or guardian, there are common signs to look for that suggest your child may be struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues: changes in appearance or hygiene, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, alcohol or drug use, a sudden drop in grades, social withdrawal, sexual or gender identity confusion, and acts of self-harm (e.g., cutting). If you notice any of these in your child, contact a local mental health provider to find out what you can do to help. Some things you may also consider doing include talking with your teen about what they like and
don’t like about social media, setting reasonable limits to social media use, setting an example yourself by limiting your own social media or cell phone use, talking about the negative impact of gossiping or spreading rumors, and encouraging and facilitating face-to-face interactions with friends and loved ones.
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Dr. Delvena R. Thomas, D.O., M.P.H.
Board Certified Psychiatrist
CEO and Treating Psychiatrist – DRT Behavioral Services, PLLC
LTC, US Army Reserve