FSU Researcher Reveals Link Between Screen Time and Suicide Risk

By Vivian El-Salawy on December 4, 2017

A recent research study conducted by a local professor provided compelling evidence that there is a relationship between the excessive amount of time that teenagers and young adults spend on their smart devices and thoughts of suicide or depression.

According to FSU News, Florida State University Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Thomas Joiner touches on the fact that this could be one of the most powerful, day-to-day risk factors for young adults feeling depressed, unproductive, or suicidal. Joiner is the co-author of a study published in the journal “Clinical Psychological Science,” along with psychology Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. This study is crucial for trying to debunk or understand the rapidly increasing rates of mental health issues in young adults.

TIME magazine reports that there has been a startling increase in major depression among teens in the United States. A study of national trends in depression among adolescents and young adults published in the journal “Pediatrics” reveals an increase in teens who reported an MDE over the course of nine years. An MDE is a period of at least a couple of weeks that is characterized by a low mood, including low self-esteem, loss of interest in daily activities, problems sleeping, poor energy and lack of concentration. In the study, students that reported an MDE in the previous twelve months jumped from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.5 percent in 2014, marking a 37 percent increase.

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In 2015, Los Angeles Unified, the largest school district in California, reported over 5,000 incidents of suicidal behavior in just one year, drastically increasing from the 2010-2011 school year, when 255 incidents had been reported. In evaluating these numbers, it is crucial to consider the fact that these were only the reported incidents, and that there were likely many others that may not have been included in this study. These incidents are characterized by the expression of openness to suicide and self-harm, as well as acts of suicide and self-care.

These mental health issues are serious, and it is important for both parents and young adults to be aware of the capacity of the issue. Being able to identify and link possible sources of major depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in young adults may be able to help decrease these increasingly high rates of mental health issues within the United States.

“There is a concerning relationship between excessive screen time and risk for death by suicide, depression, suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts,” said Joiner. “All of those mental health issues are very serious. I think it’s something parents should ponder.”

Joiner and Twenge’s study found that the rise in mental health problems in 2010 coincides with an increase in the ownership of cell phones. Between 2012 and 2015, statistics went from half of Americans owning a cell phone to 95 percent of teenagers and young adults owning a cell phone.

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Many of the cell phones owned by teenagers and young adults are smart devices, giving them access to the internet and social media at the palm of their hand. That means that students can spend hours of unsupervised and unmonitored time accessing potentially unhealthy information and material that, depending upon their age, may encourage inappropriate or negative behaviors.

The study also discovered that 48 percent of teenagers that spend at least five hours a day on electronic devices have reported suicide-related behavior. This is nearly half of young adults, considering all of the different things that they are now able to do on a device. It is no longer just texting or calling, but now taking photos, sharing, editing, saving, and viewing a variety of content. Between the plethora of social media platforms, convenience of portable gaming, and so on, young adults can do almost anything that can be done on a laptop through their smartphones.

“Teens who spend more time on screens are more likely to be depressed, and those who spend more time on non-screen activities are less likely to be depressed,” Twenge wrote in her book, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

The time that is spent onscreen takes away from time that teenagers and young adults can spend doing extracurricular activities. Rather than participating in athletic events, getting involved in the arts, or spending time outside (all activities that are proven to decrease levels of stress, anxiety, and depression), students replace that time with a screen. Even the relationships between young adults are beginning to shift from off-screen to on-screen.

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It is important to consider that Joiner and Twenge did not prove that there is a relationship between screen-time and thoughts or actions of suicide, but rather that there is a definitive link between the two. This is also not to say that students should not spend any time on-screen, as there are many benefits to these technological advances that are helping aid students’ progression socially and academically. However, perhaps it is important to value and emphasize off-screen activities, because there are many valuable, cognitive advantages to these behaviors, whether it’s kicking the ball around with a friend or playing board games with your roommates.

Vivian El-Salawy is a senior at Florida State University. She is currently pursuing a degree in Editing, Writing, and Media with minors in Slavic (Russian) Studies and Communications. Alongside writing for FSView & Florida Flambeau, WVFS Tallahassee 89.7 FM, and the Good Life Community magazine, she is a member of the World-Renowned Marching Chiefs and Seminole Sound.

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