74 Interview: Examining the Link Between Social Media and the Youth Suicide Crisis

A rare cautionary message was delivered by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy last spring when he warned that social media poses a “significant risk of harm” to the mental health of students. Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, a psychiatrist, believes that the negative effects of technology on student well-being are evident in the data, particularly the significant increase in youth suicides over the past decade.

“As human beings, we need social support, we need reassurance, and algorithms now take advantage of those needs by keeping us online and engaged with content even when it doesn’t make us feel good,” Dr. Erickson-Schroth said in an interview with The 74.

According to a new report by the JED Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing youth suicide, youth suicide rates have risen over the past decade, making it the second leading cause of death among teenagers and young adults. However, suicide rates vary greatly among different populations, highlighting the complexity of the crisis that extends beyond the harms of social media. Lawsuits filed by school districts and states, as well as a bipartisan push to regulate tech company algorithms, are attempts to address the issue.

Dr. Erickson-Schroth, the Chief Medical Officer of the JED Foundation, noted that schools are now more interested than ever in addressing students’ mental health needs.

To gain insight into the factors driving the youth suicide crisis, the specific risks faced by certain groups of students, and strategies for keeping kids safe, The 74 spoke with Dr. Erickson-Schroth, who focuses on LGBTQ+ mental health.

Here is a condensed transcript of the conversation:

Provisional data show the nationwide youth suicide rate declined between 2021 and 2022. (JED Foundation)

What are the primary factors that have contributed to the increase in the youth suicide rate over the last decade?

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly played a role, with rates of childhood depression and anxiety doubling globally. Social isolation and the inability to engage in social situations have caused increased anxiety among young LGBTQ+ individuals. Missing important milestones and experiencing loss are additional factors contributing to their mental health issues.

However, the pandemic alone does not explain the increase in youth mental health issues and suicide rates over the past decade. Dr. Erickson-Schroth believes that the proliferation of digital connection, especially with the rise of smartphones, is a significant driver. Nearly everyone in the United States now carries a smartphone, which has both positive and negative consequences. While it helps connect young people who struggle to find in-person community, it also exposes them to distressing news, cyberbullying, and social comparisons. Algorithms take advantage of the human need for social support and keep individuals engaged with online content, even when it is detrimental to their well-being.

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