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Startling Discovery: Surprising Connection Found Between Screen Time and Suicidal Behavior in Teens

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

A recently published study (Chu et al., 2023) explored the links between excessive screen time and suicidal behaviors in American teenagers.

This research is particularly relevant given the fact that among adolescents aged between 15 and 29, suicide is the second leading cause of death (World Health Organisation, 2017).

It's worth noting that in addition to suicidal behavior in teens being a sensitive subject, this is a complex area of research that sometimes produces mixed and even contradictory findings and all types of screen time are not the same.

For example, some previous studies have found that playing video games once a week can reduce depression in boys (but not girls). See 2021 study by Kandola

New research looking specifically at the risk of suicidal behaviours

Research conducted by Jonathan Chu and colleagues at the University of California analyzed a large sample of data from American adolescents (N = 11,633). Statistical analyses were undertaken to see if there was a link between self-reported screen time and suicidal behaviors two years later in young people. At the start of the study, the young people were aged 9-10, two years later they were 11-14 years old. You can read the full published paper here

What the researchers found

Young people that were part of the study watched an average of 4 hours of total screen time per day at the start of the study. Two years later, 1.38% of the sample reported at least one suicidal behavior.

Each additional hour of total screen time was prospectively associated with 1.09 higher odds of suicidal behaviors 2-years later.

For specific types of screen time each additional hour of texting, video chatting, watching videos, and playing video games was associated with higher odds of subsequent suicidal behaviors.

Other things to consider about this piece of research

The researchers were careful to to point out that this study is evidence of a correlation between screen-time and depression and suicidal behaviours, but that doesn't necessarily mean that increased screen time actually causes depression.

Authors note that the effect sizes for this study are small and there are natural increases in suicidal behaviours in a population as children become older.

The study also doesn’t differentiate between the content that adolescents consume, only the type of modality (text, video call, video games, etc).

However, some of the findings discovered in the study of activities that can have a positive effect on teen mental health and wellbeing and have been extensively documented in other studies such as:

-In-person social interactions with friends and trusted adults/family

-Being involved in sports and extracurricular activities

-Doing homework

-Attending religious services

What we still don’t know

The authors state that they don’t know what drives this link between screen time and suicidal behaviours but they suggest that some factors could include: cyberbullying, harassment and exposure to graphic images linked to suicide.

It's reasonable to assume, that there is likely to be a difference in consuming certain types of content- e.g., playing Online chess or Duolingo, is going to have a different effect on mental health than being part of a group conflict on WhatsApp or watching videos that gamify harmful behaviours. How young people feel in relation to exposure is likely to vary person-to-person.

Take away: What does this mean for parents and caregivers?

  • Screen time and excessive lengths of screen time is a cause for concern for parents and policy makers

  • It is worth noting that in the UK harmful content is now illegal due to the Online Safety Bill. Types of content that are now illegal are listed here. The list includes hate crime, promoting or facilitating suicide and promoting self harm.

  • The research is still emerging but making sure young people have a balance between screen time and in-person activities, social meet ups and extracurricular activities, sports and (for those it applies to) religiosity is beneficial for young people's mental health and wellbeing.

  • More research is needed to understand exactly what types of content are most harmful to young people’s mental health but there are also known sources of dangerous content such as The Whale Game and The Momo Challenge.

If you are interested in this article you may be interested in the fatherli article about supporting teens manage bullying: How to support your child with cyberbullying and online drama.

Other articles and resources for parents

Advice about harmful content from NSPCC (Link is here)

A Guide to the Online Safety Bill (link here)

Useful academic papers for further reading:

The Momo Challenge: measuring the extent to which YouTube portrays harmful and helpful depictions of a suicide game (Link to academic paper)

Prospective relationships of adolescents’ screen-based sedentary behaviour with depressive symptoms: the Millennium Cohort Study (Link to academic paper)

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