PROVO — A recent BYU study revealed a disturbing correlation between excessive use of social media by young girls and an increased risk of suicide. But the author of the study says there are many things parents can do to mitigate the risks.
The study, which to date is the longest to examine the impact of social media use on teens, tracked the social media habits and mental health of 500 boys and girls from 2009 to 2019.
"We found that a high and increasing trajectory of social media use starting at age 13 was related to increased suicide risk in emerging adulthood," said BYU professor Sarah Coyne, who led the study.
Surprisingly, Coyne said this upsetting trend only showed up among the girls involved in the 10-year study. Boys who exhibited similar social media habits did not display the same risk.
"There were no long-term effects for boys at all," she said.
So why are young girls particularly vulnerable when it comes to social media? Coyne said it may have to do with the way girls rely on and process relationships.
"There's been other research to suggest that girls experience relationship distress in real life differently than boys do," she said. "They tend to really internalize that distress in different ways that may be reflective of mental health problems."
BYU researchers just published the longest study to date on the effects of social media on teenagers.— BYU (@BYU) February 8, 2021
While sm had little effect on boys' suicidality risk, girls who used sm for 2-3 hrs/day & increased their use over time were at a higher risk for suicidehttps://t.co/sWjVMfhl4v
Additionally, Coyne said, girls tend to engage in more "risky-type" social media behaviors, like falling into comparisons or fear of missing out.
"They feel like, 'I'm not pretty enough" or 'I'm not popular enough' or 'I'm not smart enough,'" Coyne said. "When you then internalize that distress, I think it can account for some of these gender differences over time."
Coyne also pointed to the fact that those most at risk were the girls who spent hours a day on social media at a very young age.
"A 13-year-old girl is just not developmentally ready to deal with everything that social media can throw at you," she said. "All of the social comparisons and the feeling left out and the cyberbullying."
Young minds are not equipped to navigate the darker side of social media use, Coyne said, and if the time spent on social media continues to increase, so do the risks.
"Your likelihood of engaging with those kind of more problematic aspects of social media just increases dramatically," she said.
That doesn't, however, mean parents should feel pressure to ban their teens from using social media altogether. Coyne said it's important for parents to partner with their teens in an effort to teach them how to use social media safely and responsibly.
"I suggest starting out social media slow," she said.
Coyne, who has a 13-year-old daughter herself, said using a timer and setting boundaries from the get-go is a healthy way to introduce teens to social media.
"Our research shows that if you start at low levels around age 13, then increase gradually over time, that's not predictive of suicide risk," she said. "That's a really small thing you can do as a parent."
Another thing parents can do is simply talk to their teens about social media. Having an open dialogue about the types of things they're seeing, the people they're following, and how it makes them feel can be a great way to help your teen build healthy habits.
"We're trying to get our kids to really be mindful," she said "How is this social media interaction impacting me?"
Our research shows that if you start at low levels around age 13, then increase gradually over time, that's not predictive of suicide risk. That's a really small thing you can do as a parent.
–Sarah Coyne, BYU professor
This type of critical thinking can empower teens to reject the toxic parts of social media that make them feel bad, and instead seek out the interactions that uplift them.
According to Utah's Public Health Data Resource, suicide was the leading cause of death in kids ages 10 to 17 and adults ages 18 to 24 in 2019. The state was ranked fifth in the nation for suicide rates in the same year.
If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
There are some great resources available to youth who are struggling, including You Matter, The Trevor Project and Ditch the Label. Parents looking for guidance on how to help their teens use social media responsibly can also check out Coyne's online curriculum.