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  • Dr. Shane Owens

How smartphones—and misleading headlines—are slowly killing your kids

Late last year, a study by Drs. Jean Twenge and Thomas Joiner and their colleagues took the media (and the apparently evil social media) by storm.


According to the headlines, smartphones are killing our children. More precisely, they are causing them to kill themselves.


As evidence, they offer large-sample surveys of youth behavior which show kids’ in-person interactions have decreased in frequency and duration as their use of electronic devices has increased. Over that same period, depression and suicide have increased at staggering rates. The relationship between screen time and these negative outcomes is particularly pronounced in girls.


The conclusions that depression and suicide are caused by increases smartphone use and decreased in-person interaction are based entirely on correlations—relationships that happen together in time and space. The growing support for these assumptions is suspect at best, and could prove dangerous.


Suicide deaths in kids from 13- to 18-years old increased from 2010 to 2015. They also increased between 1999 to 2010. In 2010, suicide overtook accidental injury as the second leading cause of death for those 13- to 18-years old. This makes 2010 a natural focus.


The link between screen usage and suicide deaths is tenuous. While other mental health issues may have been stable until 2010, suicide rates in this age group increased from 10.3% in 2003 to 15.3% in 2010. This is the same percentage increase that occurred between 2010 and 2015 in this age range (15.3% to 20.3%, respectively). The increase over the time when screens proliferated is not as dramatic as it may seem.


What’s more, there are questions about the trends the authors cite as related to suicide deaths. We used to think that depression and anxiety and a host of other things were related to suicide. According to some research, we are wrong: none of the things clinicians use to predict suicide deaths appear to be strong signs. Ironically, aspects of social media posts may be the most accurate predictors of suicide attempts or deaths.


But, wait, there’s more. Let’s look at some other changes that have occurred over the same time period. From 2009 to 2015, he US dropped from 31st best in math education to 39th best. In reading, we dropped like a brick from 15th to 39th. But it’s not all bad news. From 2010 to 2015, illicit drug use in kids from 12 to 17 dropped from 12.1% to 8.8%. During that same period underage drinking in 8th, 10th, and 12th graders decreased.


And what about kids who use social media and didn’t try to kill themselves?


Take a moment before you take your daughter’s smartphone away. Resist the urge to infiltrate her life or her device with new, intrusive questions and apps that will allow you to keep tabs on her. It’s more probably complicated than what you’ve been led to believe.


Resist the natural tendency to fear that technology will be our doom. While it’s certainly changed things, it hasn’t yet. You have to ask: what’s more likely to do destroy us, smartphones or the sensationalized headlines—the pure, right to the gullet “information”—they reliably and constantly deliver?


Resist the moral panic. I can tell you (I am board-certified for effective treatment of panic): panic does not make for good decisions. Neither does making decisions based on correlations that have been sold to you as causes.


Instead, pay attention to this:


Buried in the original paper—and obscured by media coverage of the findings--is something very useful. The authors of the study show that high social media use does not cause higher levels of depressive symptoms in kids who have “high in-person social interaction.”


Saving our children from despondency and suicide (not to mention anxiety, loneliness, poor social skills, the inability to get by on a college campus, and other ills) is less about prying smartphones from their hands than about promoting social interaction. Frequently, those of us who grew up without smartphones miss the text or the snap that leads to going out for pizza or to the movies and how those things are used to follow-up on and continue those in-person things.


It is up to us to make sure that social media is a part of robust socialization, not to demand that it not occur in the first place.


Like any tool, a lot depends on the user. Take back your power.


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This piece originally appeared on ShrinkTank.com.


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© Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP.