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  • Robert Farago

Does Social Media Make Teenagers Suicidal?

Or just depressed?

“Parents are rightfully very concerned about their children’s mental health,” Dr. Jean Twenge warns at The Doctor of Meta-Analysis of Assertiveness, Sociability and Anxiety prepared the chart above to sound the alarm on the psychological damage done by social media. It’s a matter of life or death! Well, it sure seems so…

If the time teens spend on social media leads them to believe they can’t do anything right, well, it’s a short jump from low-as-you-can-go self-esteem to suicidal ideation, right? Dr. Twenge’s chart would lead us to believe teens’ exposure to social media is a life or death issue. Is it?

According to the Center for Disease Control, America’s adolescent suicide rate rose 25 percent over a four-year period (2018 to 2020 vs. 2014 to 2018). From 8.4 fatal suicides per 100k adolescents to 10.8.

As the math aware know, percentage changes can be misleading. Here are the CDC’s U.S. suicide stats for 2020, listed by age, cause and relative prevalence.

In 2020, America was home to 38.2m ten to 24-year-olds. Applying that number to the CDC’s suicide report, we get an overall suicide rate of .01739 percent. Every suicide is a tragedy, but statistically speaking you can round that down to zero.

So the huge increase in negative thinking (i.e., “depressive symptoms”) amongst eighth, tenth and twelfth graders hasn’t triggered a suicide epidemic.

That doesn’t rule out other potential impacts, from bad grades to drug addiction to chronic depression. Again, Doctor Twenge – along with pundits, parents and psychologists – has no doubt about the culprit: social media.

“It’s a fundamental change in how teens spend their leisure time,” Twenge said. “If you put this all together — more time with screens, less time with friends face to face, less time sleeping — that’s a very poor recipe for mental health.”

Great landing, wrong airport!

Set aside teenagers’ screen time, social isolation and sleep deprivation. Who’s responsible for how teenagers think? Whose job is it to raise children to believe “I can do anything with my life, my life is useful and I enjoy life”?

Mark Zuckerberg? I don’t think so. The responsibility for imbuing children with a positive mental attitude falls squarely on the shoulders of parents, teachers and community/religious leaders.

Yes, social media exposure can be mentally damaging. Young girls suffer from eating disorders after comparing their appearance to online influencers. Cyber-bullying is a terrible thing. But in this – as in everything else – the teens’ caregivers, educators, community and faith leaders are their protectors.

It’s up to the adults in the room to give teens the mental strength and moral fortitude they need to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous social media. As Alvin Price opined, “Parents need to fill a child’s bucket of self-esteem so high that the rest of the world can’t poke enough holes to drain it dry.”

Of course, that assumes there are adults in the room. What are the odds that negative thinking teens’ most important “influencers” spend way too much time on social media – rather than teaching their charges how to think positively about themselves, the world and their place in it?

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