Teenage suicide is back in the headlines, as it has been many times. In 1913, authorities variously blamed these “tragedies of childhood” on moral decay, harsh schooling, feminism, “cheap theaters,” “pessimistic literature,” and “sensational stories.” In 1927, a “wave” of college suicides was attributed to newly cynical, materialistic youth.
In the 1980s, analyses of national vital statistics reports revealed that suicide rates among teenagers “tripled” since the 1950s, inciting dire reports by health interests and news media. Frightening ads featuring grieving parents by gravestones to recruit more teenaged patients to fill beds in overbuilt psychiatric hospitals (a scam blasted by the American Psychological Association). Tipper Gore, wife of then-senator Al Gore, launched a crusade blaming teen suicide on metal and punk musicians like Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, and Judas Priest. Ignored were studies showing the issue was not a unique teen suicide increase, but a past undercount; modern forensics was identifying more suicides among the types of deaths once ruled “accidents.”
Now, San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge is winning considerable attention arguing depression and increased suicide among teens is driven by social media, especially smartphones. The smartphone has “destroyed a generation,” she claims in a widely read piece in the Atlantic. She cites several surveys indicating teens who use more social media also report being more depressed; depression among teens is rising, as is suicide; the increases in both track the introduction of the smartphone in 2012; therefore, the smartphone must be causing or contributing to more teens killing themselves.
Twenge’s theories have resonated amid rising fears of cyberbullies, Facebook trolls, and online threats. The problem with her claims is that they are simply correlational. That is, they assume that because smartphone use and teen depression are occurring at the same time, the first must be causing the second.
We’ve been down this path before. In 2006, Twenge argued that rising narcissism and delusional thinking among youth, as measured by psychological assessments, augured more depression, crime, violence, unprotected sex, and a looming “society of dropouts.” In fact, the opposite has happened. Teenage property crime, assault, pregnancy, and dropout rates all plummeted to record low levels over the last decade, while educational attainment rose rapidly. The measure Twenge relied on, narcissism, suffers from a major complication: narcissism inventory scores more accurately track the stresses of poverty than any foibles of youth. African Americans have by far the highest narcissism scores, followed by Hispanics; whites are at the bottom. In fact, we don’t know what narcissism scores or trends really mean in the modern era—only that they don’t predict the behaviors of demographic groups.
The most direct challenge to Twenge’s new argument is that the trend in suicide rates among teens basically tracks the trend among the adults around them. And what jumps out from the data is not technology use, but geography. Rising suicide is overwhelmingly a feature of rural America, where teenagers have less access to smartphones and use Facebook less than urban teens do.
Among adults of ages to be the parents of teenagers (35 to 64), suicides and suspected suicides also rose (about 20,600 in 2005 and about 26,300 in 2015), and drug and alcohol abuse deaths skyrocketed (39,200 to 59,700). Girls are branded as particularly depressed and suicidal due to modern social-media trends. Yet girls’ suicide remains rare, especially in urban areas, and while it has become more common over the past two decades, its increase closely parallels the increase among women of their parents’ age.
At the opposite pole, Los Angeles and New York City teenagers have lots of smartphones, online controversies, and stresses. Yet teenagers living in and around the nation’s two largest cities are one-fourth as likely to commit suicide as teenagers in rural areas. It’s not just demographics; L.A. and New York City teens have lower suicide rates even after controlling for race and gender.
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The popular notion that the problem is just modern teenagers, their culture, and their gadgets and freedoms obscures far more disturbing dangers. For example, youth homelessness and foster care have risen sharply, as have adult suicides and drug deaths. Over the last decade, some 1.5 million 12-17 year-olds were substantiated victims of criminal neglect or sexual, physical, or psychological abuse in their homes, overwhelmingly inflicted by parents and caretakers. Imprisonments of adults ages 35 and older for criminal offenses increased, as did student loan debt. These real-life factors—suicidal, drug-abusing, abusive, and incarcerated parents; debt; and homelessness—are strongly connected to youth depression and suicide.
Nor is social media necessarily bad for most teenagers. A more nuanced Education Policy Institute review of research found “evidence of a beneficial impact of social media on young people’s emotional wellbeing.” In particular, “those with mental health problems” often “seek support on the internet either through social media networks or through the online provision of advice and counselling support,” indicating those who engage in problematic “extreme internet” use were more troubled to begin with.
What common, larger causes are driving more suicide in all age groups? The large rural-urban divide remains especially disturbing.
One unexplored factor may be the influence of immigration and racial diversity (more than half of Los Angeles and New York youth have at least one immigrant parent). Asians and Latinos who make up the bulk of immigrants have distinctly lower suicide rates than native-born populations. Emerging analyses show rapidly rising suicide, firearms, and addiction-related “deaths of despair” afflict whites the most in rural and suburban areas where white populations are most concentrated. There are many more suicides among the seven million white rural 35-64 year-old men than among all 40 million American teenagers of all races and both sexes everywhere. Rural areas also tend to have higher rates of gun ownership and firearms mortality (correlated with men’s suicide) and lack the level of mental health services that have evolved in cities.
The stark patterns indicate that a combination of diversity and the more inclusive, service-oriented conditions liberal politics fosters may have positive effects on mental health and suicide. But serious efforts to improve conditions and services in high-suicide areas will continue to lag so long as we keep fixating on teenage culture and technological change.