As Social Media Time Rises, So Does Teen Girls' Suicide Risk
As the amount of time young teenage girls spend glued to Instagram, TikTok and other social media sites goes up, so does their long-term risk for suicide, a new study warns.
The finding stems from a decade spent tracking social media habits and suicide risk among 500 teenage boys and girls, the longest such effort to date, the study authors said.
"We found that girls who started using social media at two to three hours a day or more at age 13, and then increased [that use] over time, had the highest levels of suicide risk in emerging adulthood," said study author Sarah Coyne. She is associate director of the school of family life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Among boys, however, no such pattern emerged. One reason why, Coyne's team theorized, is that social media and young girls tend to focus on the same thing: relationships. Boys, not so much.
"We know that girls tend to feel and internalize relationship distress at different levels than boys," said Coyne. "This type of relationship distress can -- but not always -- be present in social media interactions. [Girls] also have higher levels of social comparison, fear of missing out, etc. So, that is why the effects were likely stronger for girls."
For the study, annual surveys were conducted between 2009 and 2019, with teens aged 14, on average, at the study's launch.
Most of the risk pertained to girls who as young adolescents were already spending a lot of time using social media, TV and/or video games. As their screen time increased over the years, so did their risk for suicide by the time they hit their early- to mid-20s, the findings showed.
But might teenage depression increase social media use, and ultimately suicide risk? Or is it the other way around?
Coyne said that kind of classic chicken-and-egg question remains open to debate. The latest study didn't prove cause and effect, she noted, though she suggested it's likely a two-way street.
The findings were published recently in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
More research is needed on this front, said Dr. Alecia Vogel-Hammen, a research fellow in the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis.
Vogel-Hammen noted that while depression prior to the first survey was noted, the team "did not look at how depression symptoms changed over time. So they can't say whether the girls were becoming more depressed, and [therefore] using more electronic media (like social media, TV and video games), or whether using these types of media caused the increase in depression and suicidality."
Meanwhile, Coyne said screen time is likely "only one small factor" contributing to suicide risk, alongside other issues -- such as feelings of exclusion and invisibility -- that could impact risk outside of a social media context.
As for what parents can do, Coyne's team does not advise cutting off all access to social media among young girls. Instead, "delay the start of using social media until at least age 13. And then start with low levels that only moderately increase over time," Coyne suggested. "This pattern was fairly protective for suicide risk over time. Also, talk to your child about their experiences around social media, helping them to be mindful of what they are feeling."
Those thoughts were seconded by Vogel-Hammen, who noted that increasing screen time can be a warning sign of bigger teenage problems.
"This is particularly true if their media use is taking up a lot of their time, it's taking them away from doing things they used to enjoy, or it's causing distress," Vogel-Hammen said.
"Parents and teens should be open about their amount and type of media they're using, so that they can look out for warning signs, talk about worsening mood or suicidality, and reach out for help," she added.
"It's also helpful to have some common-sense limits around electronic media use. For example, limiting use to less than two hours per day, not using electronic media after a certain time at night since it can worsen sleep, and having open discussions about online bullying and online safety," Vogel-Hammen said.
There's more on teenagers and social media at Pew Research Center.
SOURCES: Sarah Coyne, PhD, professor and associate director, school of family life, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; Alecia Vogel-Hammen, MD, PhD, clinical instructor and research fellow, department of psychiatry, division of child and adolescent psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis; Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Feb. 2, 2021