What’s Causing Higher Youth Suicide Rates?

by Wayne Munchel, LCSW   1 Comment

New Study Suggests it Could be “Screen Time”

Youth Suicide Rates

A new study1 reports rising rates of distress, mood disorders and suicidal ideation among young adults aged 18 to 25 according to lead author, Jean Twenge, PhD.  Twenge and her team collected information from nearly 612,000 adolescents and adults who participated in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which has provided an annual snapshot of substance abuse as well as data on mental health indicators among ages 12 and up since 1971. Alarmingly, the prevalence of major depressive episodes in the last year increased 63% among young adults between the years 2009 –2017 (from 8.1% to 13.2%).  And the rate of those same young adults contemplating suicide or acting on it surged 71 percent from 2008 to 2017.

What might be driving these disturbing trends? The usual culprits of an economic downturn and high unemployment don’t seem to apply, as this trend has occurred during a period of both economic and job growth.  Academic pressures similarly don’t appear to be contributing, as youth spend less time on homework on average than teens in the 1990’s.  The devastating opioid crisis seems more concentrated in adults 25 years and older. 

Professor Twenge sees these troubling trends as “generational issues”. She coined the label, “iGen”, to describe the generation of young adults born (after 1995) into the world of ever-present smartphones and digital media (includes social media, texting, gaming). While all age groups have undoubtedly been impacted by digital technology, Twenge’s studies indicate that the significant increases in mental health issues are exclusive to teens and young adults.

Twenge and her co-authors identify several worrisome impacts of the exponential growth in “screen-time’ for youth and young adults. According to studies, young people spend less time with friends and family. They get less sleep. As FaceBook time has gone up, face-to-face time has gone down.  Youth may be more vulnerable to the continuous stream of social comparisons and status checks, that gives them the impression of being less happy, less popular, less attractive and less LIKED. Some writers have referred to this age cohort as the “loneliest generation”.

What might be the implications of this research for TAY providers? Here are a few to consider;

  • Emphasize and facilitate more family-oriented supports and activities (no smartphones allowed!) Include and welcome family participation in TAY treatment plans. Families continue to play a vital role in supporting youth well into young adulthood and beyond. Don’t forget to explore how youth can better support their families.
  • Maximize opportunities for youth to meet, socialize and build relationships with peers, mentors, and other adult allies. If youth “graduate” from TAY programs with the same level of social support as when they started, we have not done our jobs well.
  • Educate youth about developing good sleep habits (more dream time, less screen time). 
  • Get out of the clinic and into the community. Finding and building bridges to places of belonging for youth, such as faith communities, community colleges and clubs is critical.
  • Continuously expose TAY to hobbies and collaborative efforts such as making music, political activism and community service. Help them to identify their passions and to pursue them.
  • Encourage youth and young adults on the smarter use of their smartphones. Set respectful boundaries on when and where the use of smartphones is appropriate. As Dr. Twenge puts it; “a tool that you use, not a tool that uses you”.

1.)Twenge, J. M., Cooper, A. B., Joiner, T. E., Duffy, M. E., & Binau, S. G. (2019). Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005–2017. Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Karyn Dresser May 7, 2019 at 9:10 pm

Whether or not screen-time is the main distinguishing culprit, the listed suggestions are great!


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