This is an emergency message: Having a smartphone will cause your kid to kill herself.
As proof, I offer this: at least twice per day, my own smartphone alerts me (with a doorbell from Star Trek: Voyager) that The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Forbes, the Courier-Post and many psychologists and parenting experts agree: Smartphones will kill your kids. A study from late 2017 by Drs. Jean Twenge and Thomas Joiner and their colleagues say so. Or does it?
Or is this study the next “power pose?” And could our new obsession with decreasing smartphone addiction be equally or even more dangerous?
Misleading Headlines Kill Children
(See what I did there?)
According to Drs. Twenge and Joiner, large-sample surveys of youth behavior between 2010 and 2015 indicate that kids’ in-person interactions have decreased in frequency and duration as their use of electronic devices has increased. During the same period, depression and suicide increased at staggering rates. The relationship between screen time and these negative outcomes is particularly pronounced in girls.
There are problems with the widely-publicized conclusions drawn from this study. First, while the samples are large, the items used to measure “depressive symptoms” and social interactions are flawed. For example, the surveys measured only a few symptoms of depression and eliminated important biological signs like feeling tired or being unable to concentrate. While the surveys asked about paid jobs, religious services, and sports, they did not ask about involvement in clubs, music, or drama.
Many of the questions about social interactions were awkwardly-worded and asked kids to recall things that had happened up to a few months ago.
Questions about “suicide-related outcomes” suffer from similar problems. While the four items the authors selected seem like they would predict suicidal behaviors, there may be little—if any—connection between those things and attempts. Recent research indicates depression, hopelessness, and thinking about suicide—the most frequently used measure of risk—don’t seem to predict attempts. Ironically, analyzing posts on social media might be the best predictors of suicide attempts we have.
In addition to these measurement problems, the authors’ conclusion that increased smartphone use coupled with decreased in-person interaction caused increases in suicide rates is based entirely on correlations. Correlations—no matter how much they make sense, and no matter how strong and attractive they are—do not mean one thing causes another.
Benefits of Social Media?
Other interesting things changed at the same time. From 2009 to 2015, the US dropped from 31st best in math education to 39th best. In reading, we dropped from 15th to 23rd. It’s not all bad news, though. From 2010 to 2015, illicit drug use in kids from 12- to 17-years-old decreased from 12.1% to 8.8%. During that same period underage drinking in 8th, 10th, and 12th graders decreased. Could suicide deaths or social media use be related to any of these changes?
What if social media helps keep kids away from drugs and alcohol?
The authors’ ultimate argument hinges on the year 2010. It’s natural to look there since suicide became the second leading cause of death for 13- to 18-year-old kids in 2010. However, suicide rates in this age group started increasing at the turn of the century and increased the same percentage from 2003 to 2010 as they did from 2010 to 2015. The concurrent proliferation of smartphones for kids is a bogeyman.
The intense drive to predict and stop kids’ suicide makes perfect sense. In 2015, 1,769 kids—kids!—10 to 18 died by suicide. One is too many. But there’s an undeniable sense that moral panic, inaccurate science, and sensational headlines have collided in this paper and its coverage.
As a psychologist who has spent his entire career treating anxiety and panic, I can speak with authority on this: decisions made in the throes of panic based on inaccurate information are rarely productive.
As a parent with expertise in suicide prevention: I admit I’m fearful of current suicide trends and concerned by the way kids stare blankly at screens. As a newbie news media critic, I say this: the media’s desire to use catchy headlines to alter your behavior are not to be trusted.
Buried in the original paper—and obscured by media coverage of the findings—is a useful suggestion about how to fix the problem. The authors of the study state that high social media use does not cause higher levels of depressive symptoms in kids who have “high in-person social interaction.”
Saving our children from despondency and suicide (not to mention anxiety, loneliness, poor social skills, the inability to get by on a college campus, drugs, alcohol, fraternities, and 13 Reasons Why) is less about prying smartphones from their hands than about promoting in-person socializing. Frequently, those of us who grew up without smartphones miss how the text or the “snap” leads to going out for pizza or to the movies. Even worse, we scoff when they come home and get right back to their phones. (How many times have you said, either in your head or out loud, “Don’t you ever put that thing down?!” How many times have you done that while checking your own Facebook? Hmmm? Hmmm?)
We don’t have to fear smartphones; we must make sure that what starts with them doesn’t exclude actual human contact.
It’s natural to get caught up in simple, logical answers to big problems, especially when the media repeats them over and over and over again. Effective solutions are almost never as simple as we’d like. This is the case for kids’ mental health problems and suicide. Smartphones may contribute to the problem, but they cannot be the only target for change. We don’t want to be shortsighted about the changes we need to make. Each action we take has side-effects.
To not be dazzled by easy, apparently effective solutions, it’s important for us to be critical of the information we receive. We live in the era of “fake news” and a “replication crisis” in social sciences; many of the things we “know” may turn out to be wrong. While the media and researchers may be well-intended, it’s important to consider each source and who supports it.
Media outlets answer to sponsors and corporate overseers. Researchers are beholden to grants and university administrators and publishers.
By all means, pay attention to the media, but don’t stop there. Whenever possible, consult the primary source. If it’s written in science-speak and you are easily infuriated or confused by statistics—as most of us are—ask an expert who you trust to interpret those for you.
If you don’t happen to know any experts, use your smartphone to find one.