Dr. Mike: The Relationship Between Teen Suicide and Technology

Dr. Mike: The Relationship Between Teen Suicide and Technology

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released its findings from a large-scale study on suicide and the findings were both disturbing and intriguing. According to the CDC, suicide rates have risen about 30% across the nation between 1999 and 2015. This is true for all ethnic and racial groups, both sexes and the varying levels of urbanization. While middle age people had the largest number of suicides and the highest increases, the numbers are sobering for all groups, including adolescents – suicide is now the second leading cause of death for teens in the U.S.

And, in my opinion, here’s what makes the CDC’s findings intriguing. The study cited the following contributing factors to explain the sharp increase in suicide between 1999 and 2015: relationship problems, substance abuse problems, job and/or financial problems, crises, physical health issues, untreated mental illness and criminal or legal problems. But wait, wait, these were the same suicide risk factors that were readily apparent prior to 1999 and prior to the 30% increase. So, if the contributing suicide factors haven’t changed over the past 20 years what has to explain the approximately one third increase in suicide?

Technology; our overuse of it, our over-reliance on it and the ways in which we’ve allowed it to influence so much of what we do, how we behave and who we are. Indeed, it appears that technology may be an additional factor in the sharply rising suicide rate, and this may be especially true for teens.

Think about it, what happened with technology between 1999 to 2015? The term “smartphone” began to be used in the mid to late 1990’s. Texting began in 1997 with the production of the Nokia 9000i, the first mobile phone with a full keyboard. Six Degrees, the first known social media site was created in 1997 and was followed by the first blogging sites in 1999. Enter the 2000’s and the Internet took off. Myspace, followed by Facebook and Twitter and the many other apps and platforms we use and know today occurred, again, all, the while suicides were rising.

As a psychologist that works a lot with teens, I see first-hand the negative impact technology can have when used inappropriately or in excess for my patients. So many of the teens I work with not only spend more time in virtual reality than actual reality, but they are also more comfortable there; when it comes to video games, texting, social media and instant messaging, the new normal is to be on-line and not off-line. Paradoxically, I’ve found that this sort of technologically driven connection to others can lead to greater social isolation with very real psychological consequences.

And what I’ve also seen in my office with teens when it comes to subsequent social/emotional, behavioral, academic and health problems (e.g., sleep problems and weight problems) for teens from technology overuse from the early 2000’s to today mirrors what the research has repeatedly found in this area.

According to the CDC, the suicide rate for teen girls reached its highest point in 40 years in 2015, and it doubled between 2007 and 2015. For teen boys, suicide increased by 30% for this same period of time. Is it a coincidence then that the first iPhone was introduced in 2007 to be followed by more and more intense smartphone, gaming and social media use by teens in the years to follow?

Numerous other studies have revealed a concerning relationship between technology and suicide for teens. One such study found that smartphone use and the use of electronic devices for 5 or more hours daily nearly doubled between 2009 and 2015 for teens. And teens who use technology this much are at a 70% increase to experience suicidal thoughts or actions when compared to teens who reported using electronic devices and smartphones for just one hour a day. Moreover, daily use of social media for teen girls rose from 58 percent in 2009 to 87 percent in 2015, and girls who used social media more frequently were at a greater risk for experiencing depression.

And there are numerous research studies revealing the strong relationship between cyberbullying and teen suicide. For example, one recent study found that teens who have been bullied online are more than twice as likely to self-harm or attempt suicide compared to their peers who have not been victimized. Sadly, it’s no longer surprising to learn on the news about a young man or young woman’s decision to take their life in response to cyberbullying. This certainly wasn’t a problem before 1999.

Technology is ubiquitous, and in my opinion, the constant presence of it in our teen’s lives is the culprit. For many, the public shame, embarrassment, humiliation, self-comparison, and scrutiny by others in real-time via social media can simply be too much to handle. For example, not being invited to a party 20 years ago was something that a teen would learn about and deal with the following week at school, but now the teen is able to follow the night’s activities live online.

A break-up can feel like the end of the world to teens, and now they’re able to see how easily their ex is moving on; technology allows for the hurt teen to then obsess over their ex from moment to moment. Not making the school play is disappointing, but now teens can voyeuristically learn about the practices and the performances and all the fun they feel they are “missing out on” via other students’ social media.

Today, problems like these are broadcasted in real time, leaving teens little to no time to privately process their feelings. The sheer volume of information can be overwhelming for so many teens who are compelled to know what their peers are doing and what they’re not doing by incessantly checking their devices. It’s difficult to cope with disappointment when disappointment is constantly in your face. Negative news and information (personal and general) are coming at our teens at too fast a pace, and for the emotionally fragile young man or lady who might not possess the emotional bandwidth to manage it, these situations can become dangerous.

Yes, untreated mental illness and the other identified contributing factors for suicide identified by the CDC all continue to be very important. But when it comes to our teens – their happiness and wellbeing, there is no denying that the overuse of technology or misuse has become a major factor that needs to be taken seriously and addressed.

So, what can we do as parents? First, understanding the teen brain – and its limitations — is a must. For teens, the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that forms judgments, weighs decisions and outcomes, controls emotions and impulses isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s.

This is why rental car companies don’t rent cars to young people until they’re 25 years of age. This is also why, in large part, teens sometimes engage in extreme or dangerous behaviors, break rules, push the limits in all sorts of ways and sometimes do unintelligent things online; where adults are able to think things through before acting, teens often rely on their feelings and react spontaneously.

Because of this, and because technology isn’t going away, I recommend that parents get more involved by finding out what their teens are up to when it comes to gaming, social media, and other online behavior. Monitoring and setting limits, as well as modeling healthy technology behaviors are a few things parents can actively do to ensure that their teen is doing okay with technology.

Parents of teens who are emotionally sensitive or immature or who have mental health or social/emotional challenges should consider being even more involved by gaining access to their teens’ accounts. This will help to hold teens in need of additional support and structure more accountable, and if there is a problem of any kind in regard to technology use, it could possibly be identified sooner than later.

If you or someone you love is at risk for suicide, please don’t hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 for support and guidance.