Several national studies have linked increased use of electronic devices to an increase in depression and suicidal thoughts in youths.
But it appears that removing young people’s access to devices altogether may also be a hazard, according to a new federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that examined Utah’s increasing rate of youth suicide.
The study, released Thursday, examined a variety of data on the 150 Utah youths who died by suicide between 2011 and 2015. At a Thursday news conference, state health officials said they were especially struck by what the researchers had gleaned about access to electronics.
Of the 146 youths, ages 10 to 17, for whom such information was available, 18 had reported recent conflicts with family members that were related to restrictions on electronic devices. The CDC researchers said the restrictions by parents or others included taking away cellphones, tablets, gaming systems and laptops.
“Additional research is needed to understand the implications of this finding, including the extent to which this represents interruption to social support networks, distress over losing access to the electronic device, anger over being punished, or some other factors,” the researchers wrote.
“Additional research is needed to understand the implications of this finding, including the extent to which this represents interruption to social support networks, distress over losing access to the electronic device, anger over being punished, or some other factors.”
— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“Researchers are really starting to look at the way teens use electronic devices,” said Michael Staley, suicide research coordinator with the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner. “And we know that from self-reported surveys ... that when teens really started getting ahold of smartphones, rates of depression also went up.”
He added: “We don’t know about the attachment that kid has to that phone. But apparently it’s a whole lot stronger than we ever thought it was.”
In one effort to help youths, the state Board of Education has introduced and encouraged schools to promote a smartphone application called SafeUT, which connects students to professional mental health help.
Other Utah suicide experts also said the study’s finding was notable.
Kim Myers, suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Human Services, said it is important for parents to “role model” a more moderate level of device usage for their children. Monitoring social media channels for bullying also is crucial, she said.
But parents and others should be aware, she said, that removing access to technology entirely might feel like “cutting off a limb” to youths, isolating them from an important online support network.
Mike Friedrichs, a Utah Department of Health epidemiologist who studies suicide, said there is still no one clear answer on why the state’s youth suicide rate is growing dramatically each year. But he suspects technology plays a key part.
“We’re developing this incredibly isolating society,” he said.