Social media was created to connect people and make exchanging information easier. Unfortunately there has been an unanticipated side effect, especially for teens.
Why is social media linked to teen suicide?
Teenage suicide rates increased at the same time that social media became popular. This is in contrast to the decreasing rate of teenage suicide that occurred in the 20 years before social media. Although teenage suicide is a complex issue that cannot be reduced to a single factor, it does appear that social media use may be an influence.
Some statistics can help make sense of these findings:
- The number of teens using smartphones for at least 5 hours per day more than doubled from 8% in 2009 to 19% in 2015
- These teens were 70% more likely to have suicidal thoughts than teens who used their smartphones 1 hour per day
- In 2009, 32% of teens said they felt very sad, hopeless or were thinking about suicide. By 2015, 36% of teens felt this way.
- Girls were even more affected at 45%
- In 2009, 58% of 17 year olds were using social media on a daily basis. By 2015, 87% were using social media daily
- Teens who used social media more frequently were 14% more likely to be depressed than teens who used it less frequently
Why does this all matter? It can be hard for teens to see social media posts of “perfect” lives and beautiful bodies on their phones all day long and not compare it to their normal teenage existence. The teenage years are a period of rapid and significant change, both externally and internally. There are awkward periods during all these transitions when the body seems out of proportion or a new cognitive skill is still in development. Teens, because of their ability to think abstractly, are aware of these changes. And, the egocentrism of adolescence drives them to over analyze these changes and fixate on trying to hide them from others. The stress of trying to hide something that is completely normal and transient can be overwhelming for some teens.
Additionally, most posts on social media are only related to positive events or perfect, filtered photos. No one posts his or her difficulties, unless it is in a sarcastic or humorous way. Similarly, no one posts photos that don’t show him or her at their best. Teens rarely see someone talking about a difficult challenge or a disappointment on social media. And for visually based social networks, such as Instagram, they seldom see acne, cellulite, stretch marks, messy hair, or wrinkled clothing. Instead, teens are digesting a diet of artificial perfection that is nearly unattainable in real life if someone wants to do anything else other than work on his or her external image.
Add to this the frequency and severity of cyberbullying and the situation worsens. Cyberbullying is so frequent because the aggressor is safely behind a screen writing and posting any content he or she has against the victim. Teens that would never have the nerve to confront another person in real life may feel empowered behind their screens to cause harm. Moreover, people not related to either the aggressor or victim can join in and continue the harm. Unlike previous generations when bullying was restricted to the school, the park, or the neighborhood, today’s cyberbullying is boundless. Even if a teen changes schools or neighborhoods, cyberbullying will follow them wherever they go via social media. There is no escape.
How can we prevent the harmful effects of social media in our teenagers?
Social media is a social construction that is central to most teenagers and it doesn’t appear likely to change anytime soon. Therefore, parents should consider setting limits and teaching teens how to manage online socialization. Parents can talk to children about how the images they see on social media are highly artificial, that people edit their lives significantly and only present the best, and that everyone has good and bad days.
Parents can also teach teens how to communicate respectfully online. This includes talking about why cyberbullying is not appropriate, how to avoid perpetuating cyberbullying, what to do if someone is cyberbullying them, and to remember that everything they post online is public and permanent. This rule also applies to social media platforms that appear to be temporary (such as Snapchat or Instagram Stories).
Finally, parents must realize that smartphones and social media have the potential for causing real harm. Along with cyberbullying and unrealistic images of life, teens that consume high levels of social media are at higher risk for depression and suicide. Helping teens understand the limits and reality of social media better, as well as setting limits to smartphone use, may help reduce the risk of negative outcomes.
At what age and how much time should we allow our children to use social media? What do you think about this preferred form of communication between tweens and teens? What consequences do you think it will have in the future? Share your ideas in the comment section below.
Kenny, U., Sullivan, L., Callaghan, M., Molcho, M., et al. (2017). The relationship between cyberbullying and friendship dynamics on adolescent body dissatisfaction: A cross-sectional study. Journal of Health Psychology [Epub ahead of print], doi: 10.1177/1359105316684939.
Chao, C. & Yu, T. (2017). Associations among different internet access time, gender, and cyberbullying behaviors in Taiwan’s adolescents. Frontiers in Psychology 8, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01104.
Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. N. (2017). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among U.S. adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science 6(1), pp. 3-17. doi: 10.1177/2167702617723376
Vismara M., Toaff, J. Pulvirenti, G., Settanni, C., et al. (2017). Internet use and access, behavior, cyberbullying, and grooming: Results of an investigative whole city survey of adolescents. Interactive Journal of Medical Research 6(2), doi: 10.2196/ijmr.6231.
About the instructor
Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.