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Every day, on average, more than 3,000 high schoolers attempt suicide, making it the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-24. At the intersection of suicide and technology, smartphones and social media are often blamed for the spike in teen suicide rates nationwide. A study by Twenge et. al. found that “new media screen time should be understood as an important modern risk factor for depression and suicide,” after seeing rises in depressive symptoms and suicide rates among youth during the same years that social media and smartphones became prevalent. Pew Research Center also finds that 95% of teenagers report owning a smartphone and 45% of teens are online on a near-constant basis. The ubiquity of cellphones and emergence of content-sharing platforms has made it immeasurably easier for young people to be exposed to cyber-bullying and peer pressure.
While there is an undeniably strong focus on the harms of technology when it comes to mental health, the use of technology itself is a double-edged sword. Despite their harms, technological platforms and services open up avenues for easy communication, access to resources, and general enjoyment. Additionally, because the current mental healthcare system lacks the resources and bandwidth to treat this crisis, harnessing technology to make mental health care more affordable and accessible may be an excellent way to battle the mental health epidemic.
Before understanding potential solutions, however, it’s important to take a deeper dive into the problem. The “unfavorable” edge of the double-edged sword, so to speak, includes problems that affect young people deeply like cyberbullying, online harassment, and peer pressure. These ubiquitous issues within schools and teenage populations are worsened by the presence of technology. The C.D.C. finds that 15% of students had been cyberbullied in the last year alone. The crucial difference between bullying and cyberbullying is that the latter is harder to recognize as it is often anonymous and happens online where there is less moderation and oversight. Rumors, threats, catfishing, and hateful language are problems that consistently plague popular online platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. Social media enables cyberbullying by allowing students to viciously comment, compare, and attack each other online. It can be just as traumatic as physical bullying, as the C.D.C. finds that both lead to severe self-esteem issues, depression, and substance abuse, all of which are common sources of suicidal thoughts. Combine this trauma with the fact that social media and technology are omnipresent in young people’s lives and it can result in tragedy. The story of Ashlynn Conner, a 10-year old girl who took her life because of online harassment, illustrates the ability of cyberbullying to infiltrate thoughts, emotions, and lives.
Another persistent issue exacerbated by social media is peer pressure. Being a teenager is hard enough already, but when paired with social anxieties, the need to fit in and live up to societal standards, and the fear of missing out, it’s clear how technology aggravates the situation. Social media often obscures the reality of each person’s livelihood and humanity as individuals tend to post only what they want the world to see. The fear of feeling inferior can promote dangerous behaviors and harm teenagers’ self-esteem, further contributing to mental health issues such as substance use or suicidal ideations.
On the other hand, fighting urges to participate in inappropriate behavior and not giving in to peer pressure can easily lead to strong feelings of isolation and depression. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of high schoolers displaying high levels of depressive symptoms increased by 33 percent while the suicide rate for girls in that age group increased by 65 percent. What caused these massive spikes? Smartphones and social media. 92% of teens and young adults owned a smartphone by 2015 and 70% of teens use social media more than once a day. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Southern California, would agree that technology is clearly a culprit here. Immordino-Yang has highlighted that social media “may not be developmentally appropriate,” given what we know about adolescent development and the intensive need for intimate and healthy social connection. But there’s another side to the story. What are the ways in which we can use smartphones, apps, and online platforms to battle technology’s shortcomings?
While the harmful edge of the sword may appear daunting, the favorable edge holds unmatched potential to become one of the most accessible and convenient suicide prevention solutions. And since social media and technology don’t seem to be going away anytime soon, they might as well be used for good. For instance, the My3 app aims to prevent suicide by allowing users to create a safety plan for times of extreme distress. Features include creating a support system, identifying personal warning signs and coping strategies, and a wealth of valuable resources. Other suicide prevention services like the Suicide Prevention App, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the Crisis Text Line provide users with immediate support, suicide warning signs, access to therapy and counseling, and other important resources. Comparably, companies like Facebook and Google are experimenting with artificial intelligence to pick up online indicators of users who may be at high-risk of attemping suicide. Still, there are more ways for big tech companies to support teenagers struggling with their mental health, from destigmatizing mental illness and facilitating productive conversations to providing online support and actively removing harmful content.
Dr. Neha Chaudhary and Dr. Nina Vasan from Stanford Brainstorm outline three ways for companies to create safer online environments in light of the perilous effects of social media on mental health. They propose shifting search results from harmful to helpful, increasing mental health education, creating practical and actionable tools, and implementing safer community guidelines. These are important first steps for companies to begin changing the narrative that surrounds mental health on the internet.
Despite the disadvantages of social media, technology holds undeniable potential that we ought to harness. Hopefully, as society progresses and advances are made in digital health, the pros will outweigh the cons and real strides can be made towards improving online culture. Businesses and innovators now have the chance to be guardians of online psychological safety, and they ought to act on this opportunity.
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