Depressive symptoms (item mean), in U.S. 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, by sex, MtF, 1991–2015. Graphic: Twenge, et al., 2017 / Clinical Psychological Science

By Jean Twenge
4 March 2018

(IFLS) – Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.

In a new paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts, and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country. All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.

What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.

Because the years between 2010 to 2015 were a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment, it’s unlikely that economic malaise was a factor. Income inequality was (and still is) an issue, but it didn’t suddenly appear in the early 2010s: This gap between the rich and poor had been widening for decades. We found that the time teens spent on homework barely budged between 2010 and 2015, effectively ruling out academic pressure as a cause.

However, according to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73 percent of teens had access to a smartphone.

Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Of course, it’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online. But three other studies show that is unlikely (at least, when viewed through social media use). [more]

With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there's a likely culprit

Exposure-response relationship between electronic device use and having at least one suicide-related outcome, bivariate and with demographic controls for race, sex, and grade, U.S. 9–12th graders, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBSS), 2009–2015. Graphic: Twenge, et al., 2017 / Clinical Psychological Science

By Michael Price
14 November 2017

(SDSU) – Time spent in front of a screen—in the form of computers, cell phones and tablets—might have contributed to an uptick in symptoms of depression and suicide-related behaviors and thoughts in American young people, especially girls, according to a new study by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge. The findings point to the need for parents to monitor how much time their children are spending in front of media screens.

"These increases in mental health issues among teens are very alarming,” Twenge said. “Teens are telling us they are struggling, and we need to take that very seriously."

Twenge, along with SDSU graduate student Gabrielle Martin and colleagues Thomas Joiner and Megan Rogers at Florida State University, looked at questionnaire data from more than 500,000 United States teens found in two anonymous, nationally representative surveys that have been conducted since 1991. They also looked at suicide statistics kept by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They found that the suicide rate for girls aged 13-18 increased by 65 percent between 2010 and 2015, and the number of girls experiencing so-called “suicide-related outcomes”—feeling hopeless, thinking about suicide, planning for suicide or attempting suicide—rose by 12 percent. The number of teen girls reporting symptoms of severe depression increased by 58 percent.

While economic struggles are generally thought to be linked to depression and suicide, the U.S. economy improved between 2010 and 2015, so that is unlikely to be the primary driver of these increases, Twenge noted.

"When I first saw these sudden increases in mental health issues, I wasn't sure what was causing them,” said Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

“But these same surveys ask teens how they spend their leisure time, and between 2010 and 2015, teens increasingly spent more time with screens and less time participating in other activities.

The researchers returned to the data and looked for a statistical correlation between screen time and depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes. They found that 48 percent of teens who spent five or more hours per day on electronic devices reported at least one suicide-related outcome, compared to only 28 percent of those who spent less than an hour a day on their devices.

Depressive symptoms were also more common in teens who spent a lot of time on phones and tablets. The findings are in line with previous studies that have linked spending more time on social media to unhappiness.

"Although we can't say for sure that the growing use of smartphones caused the increase in mental health issues, that was by far the biggest change in teens' lives between 2010 and 2015,” she said.

On the positive side, the researchers also found that spending time away from screen devices—for example, engaging in in-person social interaction, sports and exercise, doing homework or attending religious services—was linked to having fewer depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes. The researchers reported their findings in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Twenge said that limiting screen-time to one or two hours per day would statistically fall into the safe zone for device usage.

Screen Time Might Boost Depression, Suicide in Teens

ABSTRACT: In two nationally representative surveys of U.S. adolescents in grades 8 through 12 (N = 506,820) and national statistics on suicide deaths for those ages 13 to 18, adolescents’ depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates increased between 2010 and 2015, especially among females. Adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and adolescents who spent more time on nonscreen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services) were less likely. Since 2010, iGen adolescents have spent more time on new media screen activities and less time on nonscreen activities, which may account for the increases in depression and suicide. In contrast, cyclical economic factors such as unemployment and the Dow Jones Index were not linked to depressive symptoms or suicide rates when matched by year.

Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time



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