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The Risk Of Teen Depression And Suicide Is Linked To Smartphone Use, Study Says

Dec 18, 2017
Originally published on December 17, 2017 2:16 pm

A new study found that teenagers are increasingly depressed, feel hopeless and are more likely to consider suicide. Researchers found a sudden increase in teens' symptoms of depression, suicide risk factors and suicide rates in 2012 — around the time when smartphones became popular, says Jean Twenge, one of the authors of the study.

Twenge's research found that teens who spend five or more hours per day on their devices are 71 percent more likely to have one risk factor for suicide. And that's regardless of the content consumed. Whether teens are watching cat videos or looking at something more serious, the amount of screen time — not the specific content — goes hand in hand with the higher instances of depression.

"It's an excessive amount of time spent on the device. So half an hour, an hour a day, that seemed to be the sweet spot for teen mental health in terms of electronic devices," Twenge says. "At two hours a day there was only a slightly elevated risk. And then three hours a day and beyond is where you saw the more pronounced increase in those who had at least one suicide risk factor."

Twenge spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the dangers of excessive smartphone use among teenagers, how parents can manage their teens' social media usage and when is the best age for them to get smartphones.


Interview Highlights

On how parents can help teens manage their time on social media and their phones

I think a great rule for both teens and adults is to try to keep your use at two hours a day or less. And then you put that phone down, and you spend the rest of your time on things that are better for mental health and happiness, like sleeping, seeing friends and family face to face, getting out and exercising. These are all things that are linked to better mental health. So if you use the phone to facilitate those things rather than stand in their way, that's a good way to go.

On how it's known that higher rates of depression are linked to smartphones or social media and not other factors

The idea that they're under an increasing amount of academic pressure, and they're spending more and more time on schoolwork doesn't turn out to be true when you look at these large, nationally representative surveys. For example, there's a large survey of entering college students, so that's exactly the population you'd expect would feel a lot of pressure to have spent a lot of time on homework and extracurricular activities. Among that group, when they report on their last year in high school, homework time is about the same as it was in the '80s, and the time they spend on extracurricular activities is also about the same ... The other thing is, we also found that teens who spend more time on homework are actually less likely to be depressed.

On when is the best age for teens to get a smartphone

I think ideally, 14. Beginning of high school is a good age to aim for because there's some other data suggesting that the links between, for example, social media use and unhappiness are the strongest for 8th graders versus 10th or especially 12th graders. By the time they're at that age they're better able to handle the demands of social media. And some of the mental health trends are the most pronounced for the youngest teens, as well.

NPR's Isabel Dobrin in Digital News produced this story for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's time for the Call-In.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This week, we're talking about teens and depression. A new study found that teenagers are increasingly depressed. They feel hopeless, and they're more likely to consider suicide. Jean Twenge is one of the authors of that study and of a recent article in The Atlantic called "Have Smartphones Destroyed A Generation?"

JEAN TWENGE: We wanted to look at trends in teens' mental health and found that right around 2012, there was a sudden increase in teens' symptoms of depression, suicide risk factors and actual suicide rates. And that happened to be the time that smartphones became popular.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We'll hear more from Jean Twenge about her research in a moment. But first, we'll hear from a teen who called in.

DIMAGI: I'm Dimagi Kottage. I'm a junior. I'm 16 years old, and I have been dealing with anxiety and depression for a while.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dimagi is in a partial hospitalization program during the day. And she says that since she's not in school, her phone helps her stay connected. I asked her to tell me a little bit about how she uses her phone on a daily basis. We had her parents' permission for this conversation.

DIMAGI: I'm on a lot of stuff. I use Messenger - like, Facebook Messenger - a lot to talk to people in, like, these group chats. And then I'm on Snapchat a lot. And Facebook I use - you know, I like to see world events. And also, sometimes, we coordinate, like, events like my friends. And then, I use Instagram, too. I don't post that often, but I do like looking through, like, you know, seeing what people are doing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you're talking to your friends on your phone, do you see them in person, or is this really the one way that you connect with them?

DIMAGI: It's a little bit of both because - I mean, so my friends are so busy with extracurriculars and just life that it's hard to meet with them. And - but also, I have friends that I just coordinate meeting with them over social media. So, like, sometimes - so, like, I posted something on one of - on Instagram about my not being in school. And so one of my friends contacted me and was, like, oh, my God. Like, can we get coffee or something? And I was, like, yeah, totally. And so through that, I get to, you know, plan events with people. And yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do your parents control your social media habits or your phone use?

DIMAGI: Since dealing with depression, my dad - he's a proponent of - he really believes that it's not good for me. But I've been trying to explain that it's the one way that I keep connected with my friends. So - but he's been trying to get me to, you know, use my phone a little bit less.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How many hours a day do you think you're on your phone?

DIMAGI: (Laughter) Maybe, like, one and a half.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You say it like you don't know.

DIMAGI: Yeah. It's probably more like two (laughter), a little bit more.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Dimagi Kottage, a 16-year-old from Rockville, Md. Jene Twenge's research found that teens who spend five or more hours per day on their electronic devices are 71 percent more likely to have one risk factor for suicide.

TWENGE: You know, there has been some debate back and forth on, well, you know, maybe the overall amount of time doesn't matter. It matters exactly what people are doing and the experiences that they're having online and so on. Well, in this one very large, nationally representative survey, it was the amount of hours that made a very clear difference. I think one thing that's important to keep in mind is in this study, we were not asking the question, what are all of the possible causes of depression and suicide? That was not the question we're trying to answer because that's a very, very long list.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your research found that, regardless of content, regardless of what teens are looking at, whether it's fluffy cat videos or whether it's content that is more difficult, more screen time goes hand-in-hand with a higher incidence of depression.

TWENGE: Yes. It's an excessive amount of time spent on the device. So half an hour, an hour a day - that seemed to be the sweet spot for teen mental health in terms of electronic devices. At two hours a day, there was only a slightly elevated risk. And then, three hours a day and beyond is where you saw the more pronounced increase in those who had at least one suicide risk factor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And why are teens particularly vulnerable to this? I mean, we all know that adults have become increasingly addicted to their smartphones, too.

TWENGE: Yes. And, in fact, many of the studies that have looked at links between screen time and social media and depression, loneliness and so on have been done in adults. And they find the same results as these results we find for adolescents.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A lot of parents and teachers wrote or called in to say that young people these days are under increasing pressure to perform well, to go to college. There are greater demands on their time. They have so many after-school programs. How were you able to determine that teenagers are depressed because of social media use, because of smartphones and not because of any other things?

TWENGE: So the idea that they're under an increasing amount of academic pressure, and they're spending more and more time on schoolwork doesn't turn out to be true when you look at these large, nationally representative surveys. For example, there's a large survey of entering college students. So that's exactly the population you'd expect would feel a lot of pressure to have spent a lot of time on homework and extracurricular activities. Among that group, when they report on their last year in high school, homework time is about the same as it was in the '80s, and the time they spend on extracurricular activities is also about the same.

Another factor is that teens are less likely to work at paid jobs during the school year than in years past. So if you add together time spent on paid work, on homework and on extracurricular time, teens are actually spending less time on work than they were a decade or two ago. The other thing is we also found that teens who spend more time on homework are actually less likely to be depressed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sounds like everything my grandmother told me - that life actually for teens today is easier and that homework is good for you. What do you tell parents and teachers who want to know how they can help their teen manage their social media usage and their smartphone usage? What should they do?

TWENGE: Well, I think a great rule for both teens and adults is to try to keep your use at two hours a day or less. And then you put that phone down, and you spend the rest of your time on things that are better for mental health and happiness, like sleeping, seeing friends and family face-to-face, getting out and exercising. These are all things that are linked to better mental health. So if you use the phone to facilitate those things rather than stand in their way, that's a good way to go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We heard from one parent who had a solution for her daughter. Let's listen.

PATRICIA HOWDIGY: My name is Patricia Howdigy (ph). I'm from Monterey Park, Calif. I'm a teacher and a parent. My daughter went through a significant depressive state. And a lot of it had to do with the - with her Facebook and especially her Instagram and who followed her and who liked her and such. I simply took the Internet off of her phone. So she still can access Instagram and Facebook and stuff, but she has to do it from a computer. And that takes longer, so she's not constantly checking her Instagram.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A lot of parents were in to say it's really hard. You know, their child needs the computer for schoolwork. They use their phone for all sorts of different things - and that it can be hard to monitor.

TWENGE: Yes. It is a very difficult job. I have three kids myself. This is something that we struggle with. My oldest is 11, so we're not quite at the teenage years. But yes, they love to watch videos and so on on tablets, but we try to limit it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What age would you recommend giving a smartphone to your kid?

TWENGE: I think ideally, 14, beginning of high school is a good age to aim for because there's some other data suggesting that the links between, for example, social media use and unhappiness are the strongest for eighth-graders versus 10th or especially 12th graders. By the time they're at that age, they're better able to handle the demands of social media. And some of the mental health trends are the most pronounced for the youngest teens, as well.

So I - there's a parent-led campaign called Wait Until 8th with the idea that if more parents wait to get their kids smartphones until eighth grade, then that might become a new norm. And I think that's about right. I might try to wait a year longer. And, you know, if we feel like our daughter needs a phone for keeping in touch with us, we might get her a flip phone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jean Twenge is the author of "IGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy And Completely Unprepared For Adulthood." Thank you very much.

TWENGE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And next week on the Call-In, the GOP tax bill is 503 pages long. There's a lot in there. What do you want to know about how this bill will affect you? Call in with your questions at 202-216-9217. Be sure to include your full name and phone number, and we may use it on the air. That number again - 202-216-9217.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURDOROI'S "MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.