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  • "For girls only, at about age 13, if they're starting with 2 to 3 hours of social media use a day and that increases over time, then over the next 10 years, this group has the highest level of suicide risk in emerging adulthood." Tweet This
  • "I suggest teens have low levels of social media in early adolescence that increase moderately over time. That seems to be...one that's fairly protective for suicide risk in emerging adults." Tweet This

The past decade has seen two trends rising in parallel: teen social media use and, more alarmingly, depression, anxiety, and even suicide among teenagers. A heated debate rages over whether or not the two are connected—could the rise of social media and smartphone use be hurting our kids' mental health? 

Research on this topic, unfortunately, has been mixed. A new study, however, offers a novel contribution to the debate. Using 10 years of data, it observes a link between girls' social media use in early adolescence and their risk of suicide later in life. 

I recently interviewed the study's lead author, Dr. Sarah Coyne, to learn more about her findings. Dr. Coyne is a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, where her research focuses on media, childhood and adolescence, body image, and family life. A regular speaker on media use to teens and their parents, Dr. Coyne is also the creator of a video series on positive social media use.

Charles Fain Lehman: Can you describe for me, in brief, the research you conducted and what you found?

Dr. Sarah Coyne: This is the longest study to my knowledge on the impact that social media has on mental health. We wanted to look at patterns of social media to see which were most predictive of suicide risk in emerging adulthood. And what we found was, for girls only at about age 13, if they're starting at 2 to 3 hours of social media use a day and that increases over time, over the next 10 years, this group has the highest level of suicide risk in emerging adulthood. There were no findings for boys, at least longitudinally.

Lehman: As you just alluded to, there's a surprising sex difference in outcomes. Can you talk a little bit about how that shows up in media used, and what you think might be behind that?

Coyne: What we find is that boys and girls use social media about the same levels, but there are certain behaviors that girls do that are a little more risky. Girls have higher levels of "social comparison" on social media. They also experience higher levels of FOMO ["Fear of Missing Out"] than boys do. Those are the two main behavioral differences. 

Also, girls tend to be a little more attuned and internalize their relationship towards distress a little bit differently than boys do. So if they're having really negative experiences on social media, it likely impacts them on a deeper level than boys. That's perhaps why we're seeing these differences over time.

Lehman: There's another longitudinal study that's shorter, which looks at teens and college students. They find that having depression predicts subsequent social media use, but not vice-versa, which raises a bigger question about causality. It may be the case that teens who are depressed use social media, rather than teens who use social media become more suicidal. Can you talk about how you think about the causal ordering here?

Coyne: We actually looked at that in our data as well. We did a year-to-year comparison over six or eight years, looking at bidirectional relationships. And we didn't really find much with time, it was not significant either way. That's why we looked at it from a different lens: we looked at long-term patterns, and asked, is there a risky pattern in particular?

I think that there's a possibility that depressed and anxious teenagers turn to social media, and that it also might exacerbate those kinds of tendencies. But it's more of a pattern, and I believe strongly that it's the context of the use that matters more than the time.

Lehman: In this paper you cite previous research that you conducted from the same longitudinal data set, where you did not find a connection between screen time and depression or anxiety. That's sort of a surprising finding, given that this study did find a connection to suicidality. Can you square those two findings?

Coyne: It's a different statistical way of looking at the data. One is a year-to-year change, whether depression and anxiety changes itself. And then the other one is how does social media use change over time, and what are the specific risky patterns. We could look at the data to see if there's a certain trajectory that predicts depression and anxiety—I suspect it would be similar to the suicide findings. We haven't looked at the data in that particular way yet.

Lehman: You've written a guide about social media literacy. What advice do you have for parents about guiding their teens' social media use, based on your research?

Coyne: For this particular study, I would suggest teens have low levels of social media in early adolescence that increase moderately over time. That seems to be a normative trajectory, and one that's fairly protective for suicide risk in emerging adults. So, avoid really early social media use—age 10, 11, and 12 is probably too early. And certainly, [avoid] anything above that 2- to 3-hour starting point that increases over time. Time use like that seems to be a really risky trajectory. 

The other main thing is just to talk to your children about social media use in general, but in particular helping them be mindful of their experiences. When you're on social media, how does that make you feel? Help them to really recognize their emotions surrounding what's happening around certain followers and certain sites. You're helping them to become critical thinkers around their own social media use, which is highly protective for developing mental health problems associated with social media over time.

Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a Contributing Editor at City Journal.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or viewpoint of the Institute for Family Studies.