The Problems of Teen Suicide and Self-Harm Predate Social Media

In a recent Senate hearing, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and other experts examined the issues of teens, social media, and the connection to suicide and mental health. Senators and witnesses alike highlighted this topic as one of the main reasons to support the Platform Access and Transparency Act (PATA). From Haidt’s testimony:

The United States is experiencing a catastrophic wave of mood disorders (anxiety and depression) and related behaviors (self harm and suicide). . . . This crisis did not emerge gradually. There was no sign of it before 2010, but by 2015 it was everywhere, overwhelming mental health centers that catered to teens and college students (italics added).

In his Senate testimony and other writings, Haidt has stressed a correlative relationship between the introduction of social media and the smartphone with the increase in mental illness and suicide among teens.

But suicide is a complex issue, and it has been with us for a long time—longer than the smartphone. The studies on suicide rates and self harm cited by Haidt only go back to 2000. Looking at older data raises more questions.

My colleague, Will Rinehart, created this chart from the same CDC data used by Haidt, except Rinehart doesn’t stop at 2000. He follows the data back to 1968.

According to Rinehart, suicide rates overall and among teenage boys in 2020 are not as high as their peak in 1990. For teenage girls, 2020 suicide rates have surpassed their 1988 peak, but only by a few tenths of a point.

The smartphone wasn’t around last time suicide rates peaked. And social media had hardly been imagined. With this historical context, can we really blame the technology?

If we do blame the technology, what might we be missing?

The theory that social media causes mental illness and suicide is by no means settled. And by focusing solely on social media, we risk misdiagnosing the problem and throwing all our resources and policies in the wrong direction.

The Data in Context

All this isn’t to say that social media has no role in teen suicide.

In “The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls” (November 2021), Haidt writes about the negative effect Instagram has on teen girls. To make his case, he tracks depressive episodes, self-inflicted harm emergency department visits, and suicide rates among teens. According to his research, similar to that of Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, recent rises in these measures correlate with the introduction of the smartphone and social media.

His argument is compelling. It merits further discussion and research and should prompt a closer look at suicide, self-harm, and depression among teens.

In the context of this graph going back only to 1999, it makes sense:

The difference between this and the chart going back to 1968 is stark. If we don’t look past 1999, the suicide rates appear only as an upward trend, corroborating Haidt’s argument. The shorter time frame leads to the conclusion we are facing an entirely unique event with suicides among teens only on the rise.

Just as this chart leaves out historical context, Haidt oversimplifies suicide and mental health, implying that they are twenty-first century problems.

The longer time frame still shows a recent upward trend, but it is not the only peak. Social media and smartphones are likely contributing factors, but it’s shortsighted to say they are the only—or even the main—causes. 

Haidt, Twenge, and others may be aware of this historical data. However, a treatment of this history in the context of current discussions about social media and teen suicide rates is missing so far.

The Trope of Blaming Social Media

Disparaging social media as the source of society’s ills has become something of a trope. As Haidt himself puts it: “Social media gets blamed for many of America’s ills, including the polarization of our politics and the erosion of truth itself.”

Here is a small sample of titles published in The Atlantic in the last few years:

Best sellers in Amazon’s “Social Aspects of Technology” category bring up titles like Stolen Focus and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

In that vein, social media joins the long history of new technologies as scapegoats for unease.

Haidt recently joined the ranks of other critics seeking to blame social media for broader ills. In his more recent piece for The Atlantic, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” he endeavors to make the case that social media has weakened the “forces that collectively bind together successful democracies.” He argues that changes in social media technologies—the evolution from a simple display page to algorithmically curated feeds designed to engage the user—has led to a crisis in democracy.

The fact that it has become trendy to blame social media for all of society’s failings should give us pause. The seriousness of suicide, self-harm, and mental health issues demands that we vet possible causes thoroughly.

Suicide is not a trope.

The Historical Data on Suicide, Self-Harm, and Depression

A problem as serious as teenage suicide and self-harm should be treated carefully. Historical context provides perspective that is necessary when correlating social media use to teenage mental health.

Historical suicide rates

Why were suicide rates so high in the late 1980s and early 1990s? The smartphone and social media can obviously be ruled out.

Indeed, there was much discussion at the time about the rise in teen suicides. This New York Times op-ed written by a sociology professor in 1986 provides one example.

The crisis then sparked TV specials and government-funded studies to decipher why the rates of teenage suicide were increasing so much. In many ways, the trends were more striking than the trends we see today.

The decline in suicide rates that started in the mid 1990s and continued to the mid 2000s was welcome—if puzzling—news at the time.

Historical self-harm rates

The data on self-inflicted injury emergency department visits also raises additional questions the further back we go. Historical trends in this space are more challenging than suicide data because it is a much newer area of study. As a New York Times article on the subject notes, “No surveys asking about self-harm were conducted before the mid-1980s, in part because few researchers thought to ask.”

Again, Haidt cites a study that only tracks data back to 2001. There aren’t many studies that go back further, but one study published in 2012 examined similar questions across age groups from 1993 to 2008.

According to the study that examines the older data, the 15- to 19-year-old demographic saw the highest instances of self-inflicted harm across all demographics and was shown to be on the rise over this study’s time period. This reflects similar trends to those cited by Haidt, but of course social media is missing from possible correlation or cause due to the time frame.

Historical depression rates

Historical data on depression is even harder to find. Haidt’s treatment of major depressive episodes goes back from 2020 to the earliest data available in 2004. Here there was some rise among boys 12–17 but among girls 12–17 the rates doubled between 2005 and 2020. This data supports his and others’ thesis that the rise of social media use rates could have an impact on girls’ mental health. However, there are competing theories, and social media is likely not the only cause.

Suicide, self-harm, and depression all pre-date social media and smartphones. These are not new problems.

The longer-term data for teen suicides and self-harm demonstrate that these issues are not unique to the social media era. Most critics probably would agree with this sentiment, but historical context is missing from almost all discussions of the problems faced by teens.

Like so many other problems, we have faced these issues before but with different variables. These are complex problems that are not likely to be explained by any one cause.

What is to be done?

We should be wrestling with issues of teen suicide, self-harm, and depression. Studies that examine the potential link between social media use and mental health among teens should continue. This will lead to increased awareness among users, regulators, and caregivers on how social media might be beneficial or harmful.

But the causes of teenage suicide and self-harm have been a longstanding and debated problem. It should cause everyone, especially parents, caregivers, and teachers, to reflect on how they can foster a culture of connection and care for all children and teens.

Haidt, policymakers, and tech analysts alike are treating these problems seriously and offering up solutions. However, many of the policy solutions are misguided and would likely not solve what is a deeper, more complex problem.

The most popular policy suggestion is to raise the age of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) from 13 to 16. However, this solution is not a panacea and might lead to unintended consequences. Effective age verification requires more accurate information which means privacy trade-offs and likely loss of anonymity.

In his April Atlantic essay Haidt recommends free play for children as an antidote to some of the negative effects of social media. According to Haidt and other researchers, “Unsupervised free play is nature’s way of teaching young mammals the skills they’ll need as adults, which for humans include the ability to cooperate, make and enforce rules, compromise, adjudicate conflicts, and accept defeat.” This is an excellent recommendation. Inculcating resiliency for our children is an important factor in dealing with these negative trends.

The Benefits of Social Media and Corporate Responsibility

Critiques often ignore the benefits that teens receive from social media. Some of the suggested solutions, like raising the age of COPPA liability, could limit these benefits. The Wall Street Journal published a series of stories about Meta and teen mental health in late 2021. Lost in the massive amount of coverage those stories received was the fact that use of Instagram made two out of five girls feel better about themselves. Most outlets and pundits focused on the one out of five who felt worse after using Instagram. Parents and educators can magnify the benefits of social media by teaching teens how to find positive support online.

Social media is also a place for LGBTQ teens to find connection and support. According to Brian Wenke, executive director of It Gets Better Project, “While social media can be toxic for LGBTQ teens, . . . these platforms are the only spaces for many teens struggling with their sexuality or gender identity to come together and find acceptance.”

Finally, in addition to current legal protections for minors, companies have an ethical responsibility to maintain a safe environment for their youngest users. All major platforms have teams and services dedicated to educating caregivers on safe use of their products. But they have a lot of work to do to make sure parents and caregivers even know they exist.

For instance, Facebook has a Parents Portal; Google has Google Families; TikTok offers a Guardian’s Guide; and Microsoft has an Xbox responsible gaming page, just to name a few. They should do much more to advertise these services because, according to survey data at the Family Online Safety Institute, many parents feel overwhelmed and don’t know even where to turn for help. Companies should take user feedback into account, adapt and change the services they provide.

A Focus for the Future

Suicide, self-harm, and mental illness are not new problems. Struggles with self-worth, acceptance, and belonging did not originate with social media or smartphones. These are perennial human problems.

Blaming new technology for old problems distracts from our true focus: the teenagers at risk. We should be seeking solutions that build resiliency, foster self-worth, and help teens feel like they belong in healthy, uplifting communities.  

Instead of vilifying social media, we should be focusing on supporting teens as they navigate becoming adults in a world full of challenges and opportunities. This timeless perspective allows us all to grow into the future with confidence and hope instead of fear.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.