Harmful or Helpful? Social Media, Internet Use and Suicide Attempts Among Adolescents

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Today’s post comes from Emi Vargatoth, a second-year medical student at the University of Ottawa and a research student at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity research group (HALO).

A recent systematic review examining the association between social media, internet use and suicide attempts in adolescents was conducted based on an identified need for better widespread screening and prevention for suicide attempts among an age group where suicide is the second leading cause of death according to the CDC. There has been debate as to whether social media/internet use is contributing to or helping to prevent suicide attempts among adolescents as it has been found to have harmful and positive effects. This systematic review of databases was performed in search of studies on the subject and found nine studies that were appropriate to include. These nine studies included a total of 346,416 participants between the ages of 11 to 18 years old. The studies varied in their methodology, variables of interest and timescale of suicide attempts.

It was found that prolonged social media and internet use were associated to increased suicide attempts in seven of the nine studies, although once taking into account cyberbullying and sleep disturbance as factors the association was weakened. This indicates that certain patterns of use of social media/internet are more harmful than others. Conversely, two of the studies found that a small amount of social media and internet use was associated to less suicide attempts compared to no social media/internet use. These results indicate that there may be a beneficial middle ground of social media/internet use for adolescents wherein they may derive some supportive benefit from a small amount of interactions on social media/ the internet, however, the risks increase greatly as the use of social media/internet increase by a large amount.

The findings of this study are interesting because they provide evidence that increased social media and internet use are associated to suicide attempts, however, they also find evidence that social media and internet use may have positive effects for adolescents if used at low levels. This is likely because they can provide online support networks for adolescents who feel socially isolated. Two of the studies evaluated found that heavy users of social media/internet and those who did not use any social media or internet had higher suicide attempt risks compared to those with some internet/social media use, which had the lowest risk. This review indicates that both the content and length of time of social media/internet use matters. Exposure to cyberbullying, sleep deprivation or supportive networks have different effects on adolescents and heavy internet use is the most harmful pattern of use.

While the results of this review are very intriguing, it is important to note that studies comparing completed suicides to social media/internet use were not found in this systematic review. In addition, while it was found that increased social media/internet use and suicide attempts were associated, causation was not confirmed and so it is unclear whether the suicidal ideation predates or follows heavy social media/internet use. Further research must be conducted into the longitudinal association between social media, internet use and suicide attempts to determine the nature of causation. This review provides evidence that some patterns of use of social media/internet are associated to suicide attempts among adolescents and that additional research should be conducted in this area to develop preventative measures for suicide attempts among adolescents.


About the author: Emi Vargatoth is currently pursuing her studies at the University of Ottawa, where she is in her second year of medical school. She is a research student at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity research group (HALO).

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