TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The more time teens spend glued to their smartphones or other digital devices, the more likely they are to have attempted or contemplated suicide, a new study finds.
Researchers from Florida State University and San Diego State University examined results from two surveys of adolescents that date back to 1991, the Monitoring the Future survey and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which allowed them to get a glimpse into the attitudes and behaviors of more than 500,000 teens across three generations (Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z). Participants in the surveys ranged from eighth graders to twelfth graders, ages 13 to 18.
They also recorded the number of teen suicide deaths yearly since 1999 as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Using data from the studies, the authors looked at which activities — such as school work, time on social media, mobile device usage, hanging out with friends — were most linked to symptoms of depression or suicidal thoughts. Students were probed for symptoms by indicating how much certain statements applied to them. Statements included, “Life often seems meaningless,” “The future often seems hopeless,” and “It feels good to be alive.”
The teens were also asked in the surveys specific questions about their mental health, such as how frequently over the previous 12 months they’d considered suicide, or how often in that time period they’d felt sad or hopeless.
The researchers found a rise in depression and related mental health issues among teens since 2010 was directly linked to simply owning a mobile phone or device.
Time spent using that device, though, was particularly telling in terms of suicidal behavior. Nearly half (48 percent) of teens who spent at least five hours a day on an electronic device had either thought about or attempted suicide. Yet that figure was far lower (28 percent) among teens who only spent an hour a day glued to a screen.
“There is a concerning relationship between excessive screen time and risk for death by suicide, depression, suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts,” says FSU professor Thomas Joiner, one of the study’s authors, in a news release. “All of those mental health issues are very serious. I think it’s something parents should ponder.”
Co-author and SDSU professor Jean Twenge, who wrote the book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” says that the teens who spent the most time offline and doing more face-to-face activities with friends or classmates reported being the happiest.
Though the authors note that screen time itself wasn’t proven to be the actual cause of depression or suicidal thoughts, they urge parents to consider setting limits on how frequently children can access their digital devices each day. No more than two hours of screen time would be considered a “safe zone.”
Perhaps more importantly, scheduling more activities with other children or encouraging kids to try out new sports or clubs would create a more natural motivation for teens to put down their phones.
“Parents should try to make nonscreen activities as attractive as possible because a lot of them are attractive,” says Joiner. “It is fun to hang out with your friends or play basketball. Just remind kids those things are available, and they’re just as fun as trading texts. That’s the bottom line.”
According to the CDC, suicide rates have skyrocketed 31 percent among teens from 2010 to 2015, particularly among girls, who saw a 65 percent increase in suicides and 58 percent rise in depression rates.
The study’s findings were published last month in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.