Problematic Smartphone Use, Suicide, & Suicidal Ideation

Build awareness of tech’s impact on teen suicide and suicidal ideation

Words by
Melissa Strange

NOV 24, 2021

Problematic Smartphone Use, Suicide, & Suicidal Ideation

Build awareness of tech’s impact on teen suicide and suicidal ideation

The Prevalence of Suicidal Ideation

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cited suicide as the second-leading cause of death in adolescents ages 15-19 (2020a). Underlying mental health conditions can cause teenagers to perceive difficult situations, such as friendship problems, break-ups, academic failure, and trouble at home as insurmountable. With age comes perspective; young people experiencing the intensity of these stressors may believe these difficulties will never end (Mayo Foundation, 2021).

The continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic has placed tremendous stress upon all populations but has impacted adolescents in specific ways. Children thrive in conditions that promote routine, and the need for social distancing has interrupted that constancy. As a result of disruptions in learning, socialization, athletics, worship, and health services, stressors affect social, emotional, mental, and physical health (Centers for Disease Control, 2021b). Since the onset of the pandemic, concerning data suggests that among girls ages 12-17, emergency room visits for attempted suicide have increased by 50% (Yard, 2021). Young people are suffering and at an increased rate.

The Impact on Mental Health

Suicidal ideation describes “a range of contemplations, wishes, and preoccupations with death and suicide” (Harmer, 2021). Although these thoughts are concerning, because this ideation may wax and wane, the likelihood of actualization is difficult to predict. What can be measured is the impact of unhealthy technology use on these thought patterns.

There is a concerning relationship between excessive screen time and risk for death by suicide, depression, suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts.

—Dr. Thomas Joiner, Director of the Florida State University Psychology Clinic

More screen time increases risk

Screens have become invasive normalities in the lives of teenagers. American adolescents (13- to 18-year-olds) average seven and a half hours of entertainment media use, excluding time spent at school or for homework (The Common Sense Census, 2019). These hours create risk for mental health. Florida State University Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Thomas Joiner explains, “There is a concerning relationship between excessive screen time and risk for death by suicide, depression, suicidal ideation, and suicidal attempts” (Science Daily, 2017).

Researchers compared suicidal outcomes (from passive or serious ideation to suicide attempt) by hours spent on screens. Those who spent five hours or more per day on screens suffered serious risks. “Adolescents using devices five or more hours a day (vs. 1 hour) were 66% more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome” (Twenge, 2018).

  1. Adolescents using electronic devices 3 or more hours a day were 34% more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome than those using devices 2 or fewer hours a day, and adolescents using social media sites every day were 13% more likely to report high levels of depressive symptoms than those using social media less often.
  2. Risks became elevated after 2 hours or more a day of electronic device use, when 33% of adolescents had at least one suiciderelated outcome, compared to 29% of those using electronic devices 1 hour a day.
  3. Among those who used electronic devices 5 or more hours a day, 48% had at least one suicide-related outcome. Thus, adolescents using devices 5 or more hours a day (vs. 1 hour) were 66% more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome.

(Twenge, 2018)

Seeking deadly attention

Once these disorders rear their ugly heads, the problem is compounded by dangerous content that promotes suicide. Children suffering from suicidal ideation will access suicide stories that present them with horrific solutions (Bányai, et al., 2017).

Online, they can be exposed to accounts of suicide attempts and completions. They will find that victims are often revered with tributes, and those left behind are racked with guilt. Although this outpouring of affection and regret is a normal part of grieving, children may interpret it to confirm their unhealthy beliefs. Exposure to these stories can lead to suicide glorification and “copy-cat” or contagion suicide actualization (Maine Suicide Prevention).

Endorsing suicide

Sites that promote suicide are ubiquitous on the internet, from websites that match readers to form “suicide pacts” to options and instructions for ending one’s own life (Burnett, 2017, p.336). Exposure to these sites can harm the teenage consumer through suicide endorsement, making tech regulation fundamental to child safety. It is crucial to consider how addiction to technology can exacerbate suicide and suicidal ideation.

Suicide Prevention

Recognizing the signs

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the following behaviors reflect suicidal risk. If you see these behaviors or attitudes at any time, contact your family physician immediately or dial 911 if the situation is emergent. Notice if your child exhibits any of the following:

Talks About:

  • Wanting to die
  • Feeling intense guilt or shame
  • Being a burden to others

Describes Feeling:

  • Empty, hopeless, trapped, or having no reason to live
  • Extremely sad, more anxious, agitated, or full of rage
  • Unbearable emotion or physical pain

Changes Behavior:

  • Making a plan or researching ways to die
  • Withdrawing from friends, saying goodbye, giving away important items
  • Taking dangerous risks
  • Showing extreme mood swings
  • Eating or sleeping more or less
  • Using drugs
  • Hiding from reality (such as internet binging)

Seeking Professional Help

Navigating access to mental health treatment may seem daunting, especially if you are not already familiar with the process. However, getting your child the help they need will allow for a comprehensive assessment and offer them the tools necessary to cope with their feelings. Counseling and treatment can help them lessen further thoughts of suicide (Sudak et al., 2018). Support is readily available. Consult with your child’s pediatrician or school guidance counselor to make these connections.

If your child needs immediate support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This lifeline will connect you with a trained counselor to discuss your child’s symptoms and recommend local resources. 

Coping as a Family

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention guides families experiencing challenges to mental health and safety. They stress the importance of taking care of your mental health. Modeling coping strategies and being transparent about seeking therapy sends a strong message to kids that hope and help are available. When we are vulnerable, children will follow our lead and see there is no shame in facing these troubles (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2021).

Creating a supportive environment:

  • Together, look for ways to live beyond the screen.
  • Have your child use a safe phone that does not include social media, games, and access to search the internet.
  • Provide physical and emotional safety.
  • Have fun together.
  • Listen and empathize.
  • Maintain a safe environment of love and respect.
  • Be vulnerable and share your feelings openly (“What Parents Can Do”).

As suicidal ideation decreases, regularly checking in with your child and continuing support through therapy is recommended. Encouraging moderate screen time use and enforcing limits will also provide relief and structure. Approaching mental health struggles as a team offers the best support.

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