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Is there a link between teen suicide and social media use? Local experts weigh in

Holly Viers • Dec 3, 2017 at 7:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Over the years, research has shown a link between overuse of social media and mental health disorders in teens, such as depression and anxiety.

Now, a new study takes that link a step further by claiming social media overuse makes teens more likely to consider or attempt suicide.

Study findings

The study was published Nov. 14 in Clinical Psychological Science, an academic journal. It analyzed content from two surveys of U.S. high school students, which referred to both their use of electronic devices and social media, as well as their frequency of feeling hopeless and considering and/or attempting suicide.

The surveys claimed that the number of teens who used electronic devices for at least five hours a day had doubled. Not only that, but teens who used these devices for at least five hours a day were 70 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts or actions compared to those who used them for only an hour a day.

TSPN’s response

The Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network released an official response to the study last month. While TSPN said the findings start an important conversation about teen suicide, the study did not account for the many other environmental factors that could influence youth suicide.

“Some online and other media glamorizes suicide and presents it as a viable solution to their problems. Already this year we’ve responded to Netflix’s ‘13 Reasons Why’ series and its problematic handling of youth suicide,” said Scott Ridgway, executive director of TSPN, in a press release. “Social media is not the only factor, but its influence is something parents should watch.”

Contact 211’s response

Lydia Blackwell, community relations director and volunteer coordinator for Contact 211 of Northeast Tennessee, said she does believe a link exists between social media overuse and teen suicide, but adds that social media is not the only factor in the rising suicide rates.

“It’s more about uncontrollable use, and if they don’t have a parent that’s home because they’re at work — and I get that — it’s just not going to be monitored,” Blackwell said. “They’re using it at school, they’re using it at home, they’re using it all the time, and it’s just a click away.”

To mitigate the negative effects of social media, Blackwell said, parents should limit their child’s use of electronic devices and monitor their social media activity, which could include asking for their passwords and keeping an eye on negative posts.

“(Teens) don’t have that resilience yet,” Blackwell said. “They’re still figuring out who they are, and if who they are is being rejected every single day on multiple different (social media) outlets, that’s got to take a toll.”

Frontier Health’s response

Tim Perry, director of children and youth services for Frontier Health, said he has noticed an increase in the number of adolescents seeking help for depression or anxiety at his agency in the last year or so. When diagnosing teens, Perry said, Frontier Health staff tries to assess all contributing factors in their environment, not just social media use.

He added that the study doesn’t present enough evidence to say that overuse of social media causes teen suicide. Rather, he believes the data suggests a correlation between the two.

“We know that there is a direct correlation between excessive — and I underscore the word ‘excessive’ — social media use and mental health disorders among adolescents, like depression and anxiety. We also know that both depression and anxiety are major contributing factors to suicide,” Perry said. “So when we put that together, then can we say there seems to be a correlation between social media and teen suicide? Yes, I think we can say that.”

Perry added that he hopes to see more research done on the topic.

“I think we need more data to look at how significantly social media is affecting teens’ mentality, not just on the suicidal realm, but how is it affecting their mental health in general?” Perry said. “I’d love to see that happen as we go down the road.”

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