The epidemic of depression and suicide is spreading among our teens (13-18-years-old) like wildfire, especially among girls. Consider these statistics:
- Suicide rate has increased 31% from 2010 to 2015 among teens. Even more disturbing, the suicide rate has increased 65% among adolescent girls over the same time period!
- Symptoms of depression have increased 58% among girls from 2010 to 2015 (Excessive Screen Time Linked to Suicide Risk).
In searching for potential causes of this rapid increase in depression and suicidal rates among teens, researchers realized that cell phone ownership increased dramatically over the same time period. In 2012, about half of Americans owned a cell phone. By 2015, only 3 years later, 92% of teens and young adults owned one. This does not mean that cell phones cause depression, but an association between does exist between the two. Interestingly, this same research does not reveal a link between homework load, academic pressure, or financial problems and the rapid rise in depression and suicidal rates among teens even though it looked for such links (The Risk of Teen Depression and Suicide is Linked to Smartphone Use, Study Says). On the other hand, the study did reveal that:
- 13-18-year-olds who spend 3 or more hours a day on electronic devices are 35% more likely to exhibit a risk factor for suicide than those who spend only an hour or less on electronic devices,
- 13-18-year-olds who spend 5 hours or more a day on electronic devices are 71% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend only an hour on electronic devices.
- 48% of teens who spent 5 hours or more per day on electronic devices reported suicide-related behaviors compared to only 28% of teens who spent an hour or less on electronic devices. (OPEN LETTER FROM JANA PARTNERS AND CALSTRS TO APPLE INC.).
Fortunately, recognizing the link between electronic devices and depression and suicide offers us a way to contain the epidemic of depression and suicide rates among teens…not a complete cure, but a way to reduce the spread of an epidemic robbing us of our teens. With that in mind, I offer four suggestions.
- Limit screen time to 2 hours per day or less. Our teens have not developed the skills to manage the addictive nature of electronic devices. (Perhaps many of us as adults have not developed those skills yet either.) Limiting screen-time to 2 hours per day keeps a teen in the area NOT associated with an increase in depressive symptoms or suicidal behaviors. This may involve teaching our teens to limit time spent on social media, turn off alerts, not spend down-time watching videos, limit video game time, and check social media less often. (For more, consider The Burden of a Smartphone.)
- Model limited use of electronic devices. We can’t expect our teens to use their devices less when they see us, their parents, wrapped up in our phones and devices. I thought I would never use electronic devices for 3 hours in a day. Surely, I was in the “safe zone.” Then Apple put “Screen Time” in the phone settings and my time usage started popping up. I discovered that I can easily average 3-4 hours per day on my smartphone! Clearly, I have to learn how to limit my time on the phone in order to model a healthy use of electronic devices to the children in my life. Do you?
- Encourage non-screen activities like sports, outdoor play and exercise, face-to-face interactions, church, non-screen hobbies, and family games. Teach your teens to have fun without screens. Let them learn by experience that face-to-face interactions are more enjoyable than social media, “real-life games” are more enjoyable than “virtual games,” and hands-on hobbies more enjoyable than screen-time games.
- Take a vacation from electronic devices. A study from UCLA noted that after only 5 days of a “device-free outdoor camp,” children performed better on tests for empathy than did a control group. Another study showed that a month without Facebook led to greater happiness. Take a vacation. Do it as a family and invest time previously spent on devices engaging in “real-time” interaction with one another and “real-life” experiences. (For more ideas, check out Don’t Let Them Take Over.)
We all have work to do in balancing our lives in a world where electronic devices impinge more and more on our daily lives. But the work we do to limit electronic devices in our lives and the lives our family members,’ could save a life…maybe even the life of your teen!