Screens, Tweens, & Suicide
By Georgiana Cullen-Kerney

New research shows a connection between screen time and suicidality in tweens.

A recent 2023 study from the University of California (UCSF) begins to explore a connection between screen time and suicidal behavior in American tweens.

Recording the screen usage of 11,633 American children ages 9 to 11, the researchers found concerning results: The more screen time kids got at ages 9 to 11, the more likely they were to have suicidal behaviors two years later, at ages 11 to 13.

Suicidal behaviors are actions, thoughts, or plans to intentionally end one’s own life. These behaviors can manifest as suicidal thoughts, ideation, gestures, attempts, or even completed suicides.

The study found that for every additional hour of screen time per day, a child’s risk of suicidal behavior increased by 9%, and suggests that many screen activities contribute.

 

The riskiest screen activities

According to the data, the riskiest screen-time activities were:

  1. Texting
  2. Video chatting
  3. Watching videos
  4. Playing video games

If you’re wondering about social media: The study didn’t gather much data about it. That’s because in the US, social media platforms generally don’t accept children under 13, to avoid needing to comply with privacy rules

 

Limitations of the study

While these results are difficult to read as a parent in a screen-filled world, it’s important to note that the study authors see the results as incomplete, and the takeaways limited:

  1. The study was not able to distinguish between types of suicidal behavior—for example, thoughts vs behaviors, or ideation with a concrete plan vs. without having one.
  2. The study only observed outcomes from ages 11-13, but suicidal behavior is relatively rare in that range (just 1 in 72 children studied had experienced any of these behaviors). As a result, the data doesn’t speak to suicidal behaviors in the 12-19 teenage years, when according to the CDC, it is sadly the third-leading cause of death.
  3. The study also tracked broad categories, such as “watching videos”, or “video games”, but wasn’t able to categorize the actual content interacted with—so there’s no distinction between violent/mature vs. kid-appropriate media.
  4. Finally, the study can’t establish a causal relationship between screen usage and suicidal behaviors. UCSF calls out that another explanation could be that depression causes both the increased suicidal behavior and screen usage, though they attempted to control for this.

An important wake up call

The study is a wake-up call to anyone raising children to look at screen time with a critical eye.

It’s important to develop and model a healthy relationship with technology that does not let screen time interfere with the building blocks of a healthy life. Playing with friends, getting exercise, and sleep can all fall by the wayside when we develop unhealthy relationships with our devices.

In addition to distracting us from healthy behaviors, devices also deliver harmful content in images, video, and chat. For tweens and teens, cyberbullying is an ugly feature of any social platform.

Of course, it’s not all bad—the same technologies that expose us to these risks can also educate and connect. Online communities can offer support that sometimes aren’t available in person. It’s our responsibility as caregivers and guides to help children exercise discernment.

 

Creating healthy habits

So, what can parents do to establish and model healthy screen hygiene? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Set clear boundaries with screens and technologies, and model them yourself. Make screens something we do with intention, not a constant companion in all other activities.
  2. Eat, toilet, and sleep without devices. Make rules about no phones at the table, and show kids that devices don’t need to accompany us for every activity.
  3. Keep tech in common spaces. For kids, technology shouldn’t be a personal secret, but something done publicly in the household.
  4. Get kids outside—a lot.
  5. Socialize. Make sure to give kids opportunities for socialization, for example playdates and group outings.
  6. Get social online? Understand when a technology is “social”—can they chat, and who can chat with them? While many games can be played in a non-networked mode, for other technologies, chat is a fundamental element. Decide whether you want to include those activities at this point in the child’s development.
  7. Prioritize sleep. And remember — keep phones out of the bedtime at bedtime!
  8. Set parental controls. Most devices come with parental control features, allowing parents to decide what kind of content their kids can access, and for how much time per day.
  9. Quality. Pay attention to the content on a screen, not just the screen time.

 

 

References:

Chu J, Ganson KT, Baker FC, Testa A, Jackson DB, Murray SB, Nagata JM. Screen time and suicidal behaviors among U.S. children 9-11 years old: A prospective cohort study. Prev Med. 2023 Apr;169:107452. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2023.107452. Epub 2023 Feb 17. PMID: 36805495. DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2023.107452 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36805495/

Berthold J. Screen Time Tied to Suicide Risk for Tweens – But Don’t Panic. March 2, 2023. UCSF. Accessed Sept 22, 2023. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2023/03/424931/screen-time-tied-suicide-risk-tweens-dont-panic

Miniño AM. Mortality Among Teenagers Aged 12-19 Years: United States, 1999-2006. NCHS Data Brief No. 37, May 2010. Accessed Sept 22, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db37.htm