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Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, so I thought I would take the opportunity to share some insights into rising rates of suicide among youth.
After writing my dissertation on suicide among veterans, I’ve been focused on providing counselling for internet and gaming addiction. Although these look like very different areas, the topics overlap significantly when considering the root causes of suicide.
What do veterans and today’s youth have in common?
Both experience a heightened sense of social isolation.
Veterans experience social isolation due to the transition from a highly integrated social context to an individualistic civilian world. Beyond an individual problem, this is a social problem.
So why is youth suicide a social problem?
Youth experience social isolation due to the increasing dependence on technological communications at the expense of in-person interactions.
Although the details and experiences vastly differ, the experience of social isolation affects everyone the same. Social connection is a universal human need and one of the major protective factors against suicide.
In addition, there are many other individuals factors that contribute to suicide, such as trauma, mental health conditions, and feeling like a burden, but here I will focus on how suicide is a broader social problem linked to technological developments.
Suicide Surpassed Homicide Among Youth
More youth between 15-19 are killing themselves than each other. Homicide is on the decline as suicide is on the rise, surpassing rates of homicide after 2011. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) published the following statistics:
The increasing rate of suicide also correlates with the increasing rate of anxiety and depression among youth. The CDC also published the following findings on youth mental health:
“’Ever having been diagnosed with either anxiety or depression’ among children aged 6–17 years increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007 and to 8.4% in 2011–2012.”
Statistical changes among a demographic suggest there is something going on beyond the individual. Therefore, we need to consider the broader sociological issue and look at how technological changes may be affecting youth.
Does Social Media Isolate Us?
It depends on how you use it.
Facebook’s mission is to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” But is social media actually bringing us together?
As a sociologist, I took a look at the research, and here is what I found:
Social media use is correlated with depression and low well-being.
Yes, this conclusion itself sounds depressing, but let’s take a look at the data.
A 2016 study surveyed 1787 19-32-year-old men and women, finding social media use was “was significantly associated with increased depression.”
Another 2016 study found the following:
“Taking a break from Facebook has positive effects on the two dimensions of well-being: our life satisfaction increases and our emotions become more positive.”
Internet use is correlated with decreased loneliness among older adults.
So it’s more complicated than the above studies might suggest.
According to this 2015 study looking at individuals 65 and older:
“Higher levels of Internet use were significant predictors of higher levels of social support, reduced loneliness, and better life satisfaction and psychological well-being among older adults.”
How you use social media makes a difference.
According to another 2016 study on the correlation between Facebook and well-being, the researchers found:
“Specific uses of the site were associated with improvements in well-being.”
So what made the difference?
Individuals who used Facebook to build relationships with strong ties received the benefits, while those who used it for wide broadcasting did not. Therefore, they concluded the following:
“People derive benefits from online communication, as long it comes from people they care about and has been tailored for them.”
Another 2016 study found the same for Instagram:
“Instagram interaction and Instagram browsing were both related to lower loneliness, whereas Instagram broadcasting was associated with higher loneliness.”
Antisocial uses of social media can be addictive.
Neurological research used functional neuroimaging data to uncover the impact of Facebook use on the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure-center within the reward-circuitry.
The researchers found “gains in reputation” to be the primary reward stimulus. The brain’s mechanism for processing self-relevant gains in reputation through Facebook use mirrors the reward circuitry activated through addiction to psychotropic substances.
This reward circuitry applies to digital addictions such as Facebook through the stimulus of unexpected gains in perceived reputation when sharing a piece of content.
Likes, comments, and shares are all potential sources of these unexpected gains, stimulating the nucleus accumbens, activating the dopamine response from the VTA.
Over time, the nucleus accumbens adapts to the dopamine response, requiring increasing stimulation. This may come in the form of seeking more likes, comments, shares, or spending an increasing amount of time using social media technologies.
Social Media does not necessarily make us more ‘social’.
It can further isolate us from family, friends, loved ones, or co-workers when abused as an addiction, spurring us to spend ever-more time constructing our carefully curated online identities, constantly seeking out more ‘likes’ to validate our self-worth.
Although social media can isolate us through voyeurism and identity-construction associated with social comparison and reputational enhancement, this is not the full story.
There are many non-addictive ways social media can be used.
Social media can be social when used in social ways.
It can bring together international families grieving the loss of a loved one, connect soldiers in combat with their families back home, rekindle long-lost friendships, or as Facebook itself says:
“…help you connect and share with the people in your life.”
Social media is social when used in ways that help build deeper connections between us.
Facebook is a social media platform, but that does not necessarily mean it makes us more social. It can further isolate us from family, friends, loved ones, or co-works when overused.
In her recent book, IGen, Jean Twenge writes about the generation born after 1994, finding high rates of mental health issues and isolation:
“A stunning 31% more 8th and 10th graders felt lonely in 2015 than in 2011, along with 22% more 12th graders”…[.] All in all, iGen’ers are increasingly disconnected from human relationships.
She argues the increasing level of screen-time and decreasing level of in-person interaction leaves Igen lacking social skills:
“In the next decade we may see more young people who know just the right emoji for a situation—but not the right facial expression.”
This lack of in-person interaction leaves Igen vulnerable to mental health issues:
“iGen is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades. On the surface, though, everything is fine.”
This idea that everything is fine on the surface comes from the need to present an ideal version of oneself online:
“…social media is not real life. Her photos, which looked like casual snaps, actually took several hours to set up and up to a hundred attempts to get right…”
Social media platforms encourage rampant voyeurism, drawing us into someone else’s constructed world, spurring us to spend ever-more time constructing our own carefully curated online identities for others to see.
Our friend-lists are paper-trails of past acquaintances, giving us a little window to voyeuristically peer into their lives, casually connect, or rekindle a friendship.
Paradoxically, we can feel alone in a sea of social media connections.
Like the Sociologist David Riesman’s concept of the “lonely crowd,” we are perpetually other-directed, scanning and finger-scrolling screens, searching for a kind of stimulation that never seems to fulfill our sense that we are good enough.
How Social Media Affects Self-Esteem
Picturesque portraits in Machu Picchu, selfies in the sand in Santorini, engagements, children, and new homes remind us of how we always seem to be missing out on life’s milestones and adventures.
We curate our online identities, attempting to live up to an impossible standard, ever-more concerned with our digital reputation.
According to a PEW Research report on Teens, Social Media & Technology they report the following experience of a 15-year-old girl:
“It provides a fake image of someone’s life. It sometimes makes me feel that their life is perfect when it is not.”
This perfectionism is amplified by new technology on social media platforms that automatically edit your photos. Dr. Hamlet, from the Child Mind Institute states the following:
“…there’s a so-called “pretty filter” on Instagram and Snapchat. Beautifying filters are used almost reflexively by many, which means that girls are getting used to seeing their peers effectively airbrushed every single day online. There are also image altering apps that teens can download for more substantial changes. Facetune is one popular one, but there are many, and they can be used to do everything from erase pimples to change the structure of your face or make you look taller.”
Rae Jacobson, from the Child Mind Institute, presents the experience of a young woman in the following passage:
“Look,” says Sasha, a 16-year-old junior in high school, scrolling slowly through her Instagram feed. “See: pretty coffee, pretty girl, cute cat, beach trip. It’s all like that. Everyone looks like they’re having the best day ever, all the time.”
The article goes on to describe the problem with this perfectionism is negative social comparison:
“Kids view social media through the lens of their own lives,” says Dr. Emanuele. “If they’re struggling to stay on top of things or suffering from low self-esteem, they’re more likely to interpret images of peers having fun as confirmation that they’re doing badly compared to their friends.”
The negative emotion produced by this social comparison can result in an attempt to bolster one’s low self-esteem by attempting to gain more likes on their own photos.
The problem with this short-term solution is that it creates long term problems, like any other addiction. Rae Jacobson goes on to state:
Teens who have created idealized online personas may feel frustrated and depressed at the gap between who they pretend to be online and who they truly are.
Social media is addictive because pretending to be someone else online further reinforces the idea that you are not enough. Receiving several likes is a temporary solution, but genuine self-esteem suffers in the long run.
As selfies gain popularity on Instagram the research findings from a 2017 study on the topic reveal some important lessons. Here are the highlights:
• Selfie viewing was negatively associated with self-esteem.
• Groupie viewing was positively associated with self-esteem.
• Frequent groupie viewing led to increased life satisfaction.
• Frequent selfie viewing led to decreased life satisfaction.
• Need for popularity moderated the relationship between selfie viewing and self-esteem.
• Need for popularity moderated the relationship between selfie viewing and life satisfaction.
In our selfie-obsessed Instagram culture, findings like this are important to consider. Mindlessly scrolling through Instagram selfies may be affecting us more than we think.
What Makes New Social Media Different?
I grew up in the era of MSN messenger, chat rooms, message boards, and MySpace. I remember feeling heavily drawn to connecting with my friends online, often communicating more online than in person. But these online social platforms are fundamentally different from today’s platforms.
Today’s social platforms are more than a neutral space to communicate with friends. They are miniature broadcasting platforms.
I still remember a time before the Facebook ‘like’ button. The button was introduced in 2009 and made the platform more than simply about commenting and sharing. In 2016, the ‘reactions’ button came out, further allowing users to share their emotional reactions to your content.
The ‘like’ button amplified the social comparison potential. In an article featuring an interview with Dr. Max Blumburg, he states:
“…you’re making yourself vulnerable to the thoughts of others, so it’s not surprising that if it doesn’t elicit the reaction you’d hoped for your pride takes a hit. We’re seeking approval from our peers and it’s not nice when we don’t get it – you want people to think your ‘content’ is funny/interesting/likeable. ‘If you have low self-esteem and you don’t do well on social media, you’re going to feel particularly bad.
We are all miniature media companies, in a sense. The responsibility to manage one’s reputation online has skyrocketed since the development of these advanced technologies.
The thought of having a career as a social media celebrity was unthinkable not too long ago. Now, social media influencers are a key aspect of mainstream marketing.
We’re all having to become our own marketers online. This is something I think about quite a bit, given the fact that I created this website for the purpose of sharing my ideas in non-traditional ways.
Although you can use social media to further your professional career and build connections with like-minded people, it is important to be mindful of when it is having a negative impact on your life.
If you suspect your internet use may be having a negative impact, you can try the free Internet Addiction Test here.
As described throughout this article, social media can be an addiction, like any other substance. For those struggling with an addiction to social media, you are not alone.
This is a very common issue that can be treated through self-help activities, psychological treatments, counseling, and support groups.
If you are simply looking to prevent any issues, it could be helpful to be mindful of the way you are relating to social media. If you find you are constantly seeking likes and validation, perhaps taking a break might help you clear your head.
Finding hobbies or new activities to engage in could help build your sense of self, in addition to building an in-person peer group.
If you decide to return to social media use, it is important to set limits on how long you intend to spend on it, how often you intend on checking it, and considering whether or not you are using it in a meaningful way to connect.
It could also be helpful to turn off your push-notifications so you are not getting constant beeps or buzzes. See my article on 5 Powerful Ways to Spend Less Time on Social Media (with pictures), for some helpful tips.
If you are still having difficulties, treatment may also be helpful. Internet addiction is becoming increasingly recognized and can now be formally diagnosed in the DSM.
Treatment looks different for each individual, based on their unique experiences. Based on my research into evidence for psychotherapeutic treatments, mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral approaches seem to have the highest level of evidence supporting their effectiveness. In addition, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is quickly becoming an industry standard and is a personal favorite of mine.
These approaches are also effective for several other mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and OCD.
Youth experience social isolation due to the increasing dependence on technological communications at the expense of in-person interactions.
This social isolation increases the risk of suicide since the need for social connection is not being fulfilled.
Although I have focused on broader social/ technological developments here, there are many individual factors contributing to suicide as well. Mental health issues and a history of trauma are some major individual contributors.
If you want to read more on these individual factors and subjective experiences, I’ve written an in-depth article here: Inside the Mind of a Suicidal Person.
If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, it is important to talk to your doctor and seek psychotherapy from a qualified practitioner.
If it is a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (in the US) or seek out your local Crisis Centre and speak to someone who can help.
Thanks Steve always enjoy reading your articles. Teen suicide is definitely an issue. My son lost his best friend at age 14 on 11/29/17.
Thank you for your comment, Tara. I am sorry to hear about the loss of your son’s best friend at such a young age.
We are living in an age where ” I am ok with Failure as long as I can Instagram it” and make money… Facebook has done for selfishness what Ayn Rand couldn’t … It’s horrible all this constant-validation-seeking-self-destructive-behavior ….
Thanks for the comment! The external validation seeking is for sure a central part of the issue.
A very informative article, Steve. This growing trend of teen suicides is very disturbing. I share your conclusion that “[y]outh experience social isolation due to the increasing dependence on technological communications at the expense of in-person interactions.” When I have to compete for attention with an image on a SmartPhone, I usually lose.
Thank you for the comment, Rosaliene!
great article. Ironically, I’m reading it on the internet. Antisocial use can be…addictive (not addicting).
Yes.. quite ironic. Social media can connect us, but unfortunately, it can also do the opposite. Thanks for the correction!
Excellent. Thank you.