Tech Teen suicides now outnumber homicides — and smartphone use could be playing a major role

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A San Diego State University psychologist says smartphones and social media may play a troublingly large role in the worsening of mental health among teens.

The mental health of teens has declined significantly as smartphones have become prominent. play

The mental health of teens has declined significantly as smartphones have become prominent.

(Getty Images/Spencer Platt)
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And according to research presented in a recent article in The Atlantic, excerpted from a book written by Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, smartphones and social media may deserve a lot of the blame.

"As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another," Twenge wrote, "and more likely to kill themselves."

Over the past decade, psychologists have come to see a picture in which young, developing brains are pitted against the power of brightly colored notifications, relentless pocket vibrations, and addicting apps. A byproduct has been an increase in disorders such as depression and anxiety, which can sometimes be fatal.

Twenge's research has indicated that while suicide rates aren't the highest they've ever been — that peak came in the early 1990s, before smartphones emerged — the proliferation of screen-based devices and social media has fundamentally changed how people interact for the worse.

On the one hand, social media allows teens — and anyone, for that matter — to communicate with lots of people at once. But as the MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle has said, that communication may not lead to connection. Something is getting lost, and psychology experts have surmised it's a feeling of closeness or comfort.

In her recent piece, Twenge cites research that found that eighth-graders who frequently used social media increased their risk of depression by 27% and that the risk was much lower for those who were involved in sports or their community. In addition, teens who spent at least three hours on devices were significantly more likely to show suicidal tendencies, such as researching ways to kill themselves, according to Twenge.

Loneliness seems to be a major factor in why smartphones and social media can contribute to worsening mental health.

"Today's teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly — on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook," Twenge wrote. "Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it."

In the days before social media, not getting invited to a party still felt bad. But the bad feeling may have gone away within a day or two as people stopped talking about the night's events. With apps that document every party happening in real time, and preserve those memories forever, there is never a shortage of reminders that you were left out.

Some teens seem to lack a healthy outlet for dealing with those bad feelings. The effects of loneliness have left them emotionally ill-equipped to seek out resources that might improve their mental health. Instead, they bear their psychic pain in private.

Twenge advocates parents taking a more active role in limiting their teens' smartphone use.

"The average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices," she wrote. "Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits."