Teen use of smartphones and social media skyrocketed simultaneously with rates of adolescent depression. Though causation has yet to be established, for parents – it’s better safe than sorry.


A study published last month by The Association for Psychology Science found, in two nationally representative surveys, that adolescents in grades 8 through 12 have been subject to a staggering 30% increase in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates from 2010 and 2015 — young women were affected most, with reported suicide among teen girls is at a 40-year high. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that the number of adolescents who experienced at least one major depressive episode leapt by 60%. Their 2016 survey found that about 13% of 17,000 kids had a major depressive episode, compared to 8% of the kids surveyed in 2010. Suicide deaths among people age 10 to 19 have also risen alarmingly, according to the latest data from the CDC.

“These increases are huge — possibly unprecedented,” explains Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Twenge recently found that kids who spent three hours or more a day on smartphones or other electronic devices were 34% more likely to suffer at least one suicide-related outcome — including feeling hopeless or seriously considering suicide — than kids who used devices two hours a day or less. Among kids who used electronic devices five or more hours a day, Twenge found that 48% had at least one suicide-related outcome.

This crisis takes place in new era of personal technology that immediately follows a period of time during the late-1990s and early 2000s when rates of adolescent depression and suicide mostly held steady or declined; teaching us that parents and caregivers must find new ways to address the evolving electronic threat to the health of teens.

Recent studies have found that teenagers are spending an average of nine hours per day on social media, for tweens – kids between eight and twelve years old – are averaging six hours, and even among children eight years and younger, the amount of time spent on digital media has tripled from 15 minutes a day in 2013 to 48 minutes per day in 2017. According to the Pew Research Center, youth smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – just when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By the end of the documented increase period in 2015, 73% of teens had access to a smartphone.

Smartphone ownership is pivotal because it allows for constant access to Social Media apps, like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram — applications whose effects on developing minds are only just beginning to be researched and understood.

According to a new paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, people who logged onto social media accounts for more than two hours per day were twice as likely to experience social isolation than those who spent less than half an hour. While a study published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE found that on the surface, Facebook provided an invaluable resource for fulfilling social needs by allowing people to instantly connect, however, rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive “offline” social networks powerfully do, their findings demonstrated that interacting with Facebook seemed to predict the opposite result for young adults — it undermined wellness.

Thankfully, Facebook is aware of, and working to combat these startling findings. They’re working to make the platform more about social interaction and less about spending large periods of time logged in. CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently said, “We want the time people spend on Facebook to encourage meaningful social interactions.” and they’re backing that up with changes to News Feed to provide more opportunities for meaningful interactions and reduce passive consumption of low-quality content, launching Snooze — which gives people the option to hide a person, Page or group for 30 days, without having to permanently unfollow or unfriend them, the creation of a tool to aid in post break-up relations — Take a Break — which gives people more centralized control over when they see their ex on Facebook, what their ex can see, and who can see their past posts, and through the development of suicide prevention tools with the help of an international team.

Experts acknowledge that their research does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship exists between new media and depression, and they are also very clear about the benefits social media can present, and encourage a balanced point of view. For example, research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that college students who viewed their own Facebook profiles enjoyed a boost in self-esteem afterward, and by curating their online personas to reflect their best traits — choosing flattering pictures and sharing exciting experiences — users remember what they like best about themselves.

Additionally, many adolescents are making social connections online they could not find elsewhere. This is particularly true of marginalized teens, such as kids in foster homes, LGBT adolescents, and for young adults with serious mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — according to a study published in 2016.

Across the board, research and academic literature suggests that how you use social media matters when considering health and well-being. As Sir Simon Wessely, president of the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists, explained,

“I am sure that social media plays a role in unhappiness, but it has as many benefits as it does negatives. We need to teach children how to cope with all aspects of social media — good and bad — to prepare them for an increasingly digitized world. There is real danger in blaming the medium for the message.”

This explanation came on the heels of The UK’s Royal Society for Public Health’s recently conducted a survey in which the amount of unregulated screen time accessed by modern kids was found to be potentially more significant than the type of media kids are engaging with — a fact that has experts supporting an education-based approach and urging parents to protect their kids with the use of parental controls and screen time limits.

While there are distinct benefits to social media use, it is important to remember that kids who spent more time on non-screen activities such as in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services, were less likely to report mental health symptoms — making it clear that face-to-face time with peers is key to the mental health of adolescents. Social media can provide much-needed support, strengthen existing friendships, and offer a sense of belonging for some teens, but it can also rob them of crucial relationship building skills and contribute to a decline in mental health. The best solution so far?

Balance.

There is no backing away from the increasing importance of technology in our lives, but there are tools in place to assist parents in providing a well — balanced social diet for growing adolescents — as we covered in our article detailing the need for parental attention to their child’s online consumption.

Subscribe to our blog to stay in the loop on emerging news regarding parental controls and screen time regulation, and remember to supply a steady schedule of off-line interaction to give your child the best chance at success!

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