The use of smartphones and social media has become an integral part of the daily life of teens. Now, misguided concerned attention has focused on smartphones and social media, particularly regarding a potential link with suicide.
In the past 10 years, teen suicides have increased, and this is certainly something we should pay attention to. But this likely is not a new trend brought on by smartphones or social media. Teen (meaning 15 to 19 years old) suicide rates today are about the same as they were in the early 1990s, well before anyone held an iPhone.
One large-scale data set of more than 1 million teens even found that teens are slightly happier today than they were in the 1990s. Even if you only examine data from the past decade, it becomes clear that both the number of suicides and the raw increase in suicides are higher among middle-aged adults, who use less tech. While there were 1,151 more teen and preteen (aged 10 to 19) suicides in 2017 than a decade ago, we see the number of suicides committed by adults (aged 45 to 54) dramatically increase by 3,480 during this same time period.
What these statistics suggest is that the recent increase in suicides is not unique to young people and, more importantly, youth suicides rates today are not much different than they were in the recent past, when there was no Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat to blame.
Unfortunately, a few recent irresponsible headlines and claims by scholars continue to perpetrate the notion that social media increases risk for suicide. One recent study suggested a rise in depression and suicide among teens is linked to this technology, but didn’t bother to actually measure technology use among teens. The study offered no data, for instance, to suggest that teens who use more screens experience greater depression or committed suicide more often than those using less screens.
Nor is it clear that annual changes in depression or suicide correspond with annual changes in screen use. Another study implicated technology use in teen depression among girls but not boys. However, a close read suggested that technology use might account for less than a third of one percent of risk for depression. A more recent study unpacking the same data debunked the technology and depression claims, noting that the risk of eating potatoes or wearing eyeglasses for depression is about the same magnitude. Nobody warns parents of the dangers of eyeglasses.
The most recent longitudinal study followed more than 1,500 teens for up to six years and found no evidence suggesting social media caused depression among teens. Two studies by one of us (Chris Ferguson) found little evidence for a link between screen use and depression or suicide risk in teens or young adults. All told, the evidence for a link between technology use and youth suicide or depression seems exceptionally weak, whether looking at epidemiological data or the available studies.
Part of the problem is an ongoing one for psychological science, namely the tendency for scholars, the media, and professional guilds like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to hype weak results linking social media and screens to unhealthy behaviors onto an unsuspecting public. We find some of these efforts, like the AAP recommending that parents limit their kids’ screen time, to be deeply misleading, akin to a company hawking dubious products. We also worry about the potential for undisclosed conflicts of interest (such as offering consulting services or paid talks to tech companies) among scholars on either side of the debate. But, in particular, professional groups need to be more responsible about not marketing faulty science to policy makers and the public.
Blaming social media for suicide before there is good evidence threatens to distract us from the real underlying causes. It takes time and attention away from study of more fundamental mental-health concerns among researchers, politicians, and parents. A parent who worries that his or her child is suicidal might try to limit their social media instead of seeking professional counseling and other support for them. Programs at schools will focus on social media instead of the causes of suicide. This is why so many scholars are vocal against such fear mongering — and asking for it to stop.