Are smartphones causing more teen suicides?

‘All of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.’
 ‘All of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.’ 


Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of US teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33% in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23%. Even more troubling, the number of 13 to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31%.

In a paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country. All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.

What happened that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden rise of the smartphone.

Because the years between 2010 to 2015 were a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment, it’s unlikely that economic malaise was a factor. Income inequality was (and still is) an issue, but it didn’t suddenly appear in the early 2010s: this gap between the rich and poor had been widening for decades. We found that the time teens spent on homework barely budged between 2010 and 2015, effectively ruling out academic pressure as a cause.

However, according to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50% threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73% of teens had access to a smartphone.

Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71% more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Of course, it’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online. But three other studies show that is unlikely (at least, when viewed through social media use).

Two followed people over time, with both studies finding that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness, while unhappiness did not lead to more social media use. A thirdrandomly assigned participants to give up Facebook for a week versus continuing their usual use. Those who avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.

The argument that depression might cause people to spend more time online doesn’t also explain why depression increased so suddenly after 2012. Under that scenario, more teens became depressed for an unknown reason and then started buying smartphones, which doesn’t seem too logical.

What’s lost when we’re plugged in

Even if online time doesn’t directly harm mental health, it could still adversely affect it in indirect ways, especially if time online crowds out time for other activities.

For example, while conducting research for my book on iGen, I found that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide. We found that teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed. Since 2012, that’s what has occurred en masse: teens have spent less time on activities known to benefit mental health (in-person social interaction) and more time on activities that may harm it (time online).

Teens are also sleeping less, and teens who spend more time on their phones are more likely to not be getting enough sleep. Not sleeping enough is a major risk factor for depression, so if smartphones are causing less sleep, that alone could explain why depression and suicide increased so suddenly.

Depression and suicide have many causes: genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma can all play a role. Some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in.

But some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.

It might be argued that it’s too soon to recommend less screen time, given that the research isn’t completely definitive. However, the downside to limiting screen time – say, to two hours a day or less – is minimal. In contrast, the downside to doing nothing – given the possible consequences of depression and suicide – seems, to me, quite high.

It’s not too early to think about limiting screen time; let’s hope it’s not too late.


Link to Guardian article here 

Associate feature: Connecting with nature to boost youth mental health

Francesca Osowska


By the time they’re 16, roughly three children in every classroom in Scotland will have experienced a mental health problem. In recent years there have been dramatic increases in young people reporting psychological health complaints – feeling low, irritable, nervous, dizzy, and having sleep difficulties.

In this, the Year of Young People, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is playing its part to tackle the trend. Getting active in nature can boost physical and mental well-being. Increasingly, we are also understanding the value of ‘mindfulness’ – of stopping and taking notice of your surroundings – whether that’s watching boats on the Clyde,  listening to swifts chatter overhead on a summer evening or even just ‘cloudwatching’.

Those who live in less affluent circumstances can be more at risk of developing mental health problems. That’s why we’re currently channeling £37.5m of investment through a Green Infrastructure Fund to deliver projects across Scotland which improve or create urban green space close to areas of multiple deprivation, and work with others to deliver better places and environments for people living in our towns and cities.

Our Learning in Local Greenspace initiative aims to work with 100 schools in the 20 per cent most disadvantaged areas to increase use of greenspace to achieve health and well-being benefits as well as increase attainment levels.

Mental health charity SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health) plays a key role in raising awareness of mental health problems in Scotland and has worked in partnership with us, notably at its Redhall Walled Garden project in south Edinburgh. By taking a therapeutic horticultural approach, Redhall helps people improve their health and wellbeing, through engagement in employability, volunteering and educational opportunities; and by building social relationships within their local community.

There’s still much to be done, and SNH is working to make a positive difference to the lives of young people and the generations to come.

Francesca Osowska is CEO of Scottish Natural Heritage. This piece was sponsored by SNH.

Francesca Osowska is raising funds and awareness for SAMH through #Cycle for Nature: 


Link to Holyrood article here 

Renfrewshire SNP councillors welcome Youth Commission to research services for young people

Renfrewshire SNP councillors welcome Youth Commission to research services for young people

A team of young people are aiming to improve mental health services by leading a study commissioned by the Scottish Government as part of a 10 year Mental Health Strategy launched last year.In a partnership between the Scottish Government, Young Scot and the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), 22 members of the Youth Commission on Mental Health Services will begin work this week in an effort to reshape the support available.

The Youth Commission will work together to develop recommendations for ministers and service providers on how child and adolescent mental health services can be improved.

Mental health is a key theme of the Scottish Governments Year of Young People 2018.

Renfrewshire Council’s Convener of Education and Children’s Services Cllr Jim Paterson has welcomed this progress, he said: “I am pleased to see that this Commission will begin work this week. This is the Year of Young People 2018 in Scotland and it is extremely encouraging to know that this study will give young people the chance to shape and develop their own strategies and ideas on the best ways to improve mental health services for them.”

“This commission gives an opportunity to deliver real change, based on evidence and experience, and create a society and health service that better meets the mental and physical health needs of our children and young people.”

“Here in Renfrewshire, the SNP fully understand that young people should be involved in decisions that affect them. I am very proud that Renfrewshire was one of the first local authorities to have a young person put forward a motion to Council which will see young people in Renfrewshire involved in the development of the Personal, Social and Health Education.”

Vice Chair of the Renfrewshire Health and Social Care Integration Joint Board, Cllr Jacqueline Cameron, added: “Improving mental health in young people is a key aim for the SNP group in Renfrewshire Council and it is encouraging to know that future policy can be built around work undertaken by young people themselves.”

“The Scottish Government have been very supportive in the innovative ways that we can improve the mental health needs of our younger generations. This commission is a step forward in improving the mental health of young people in Renfrewshire.”


Link to Renfrewshire 24 hour news here