- The teen suicide rate now is about the same as it was in the 1970s.
- The teen suicide rate has not increased in most countries throughout the world. In fact, it has fallen.
- Social media cannot be attributed as the driving cause of youth suicide.
There has been much discussion recently about adolescent mental health. Some of this comes in the wake of the alarming CDC report released in February showing unprecedented levels of sadness and suicidality, especially in teen girls. Some say social media is to blame for this recent rise in mental health problems, and I remain skeptical.
But before we try to understand what variables might be causing the problem, we should first clarify whether there is, in fact, a problem, and what exactly the problem is. Some of this depends on how we interpret mental health trend data. Is the American adolescent suicide rate at an all-time high? And how do we compare to the rest of the world?
While it is the case that the suicide rate among American teenagers increased over the last 10 to 15 years, if we pull back the lens a bit, things get more complicated. Across recent history, we can see that overall, the teen suicide rate is about the same now as it was in the 1970s. In fact, the suicide rate amongst teen boys was higher in the 1990s than it is now. Following this, it dropped in the late 90s and early 2000s (no one knows why), before rising again in the 2010s. Look for yourself at the CDC data here.
Still, even if teen suicides are lower than last century, it is still alarming to see them rising in recent years. Something is definitely going on. If, for example, we hypothetically found out that cancer or pregnancy death rates were increasing over the past few years, the notion that they had gone down 30 years ago and were now returning to baseline would be cold comfort. But is the recent increase in youth suicide a worldwide phenomenon? The answer appears to be no. In most other countries throughout the world, the suicide rate among adolescents has not increased over the past 10 to 15 years. A paper published in 2020 by a group of researchers from Britain found that the suicide rate amongst teenagers has risen only in Australia, Canada, the UK, and USA. Whereas in France, Italy, Poland, Spain, Germany, Japan and Korea, the teen suicide rate has fallen.
These researchers characterize the four countries with rising teen suicidality as being unique in several ways. These are “populous high-income predominantly English-speaking nations” which also have high levels of economic inequality. These four countries were all in the top five highest for economic inequality (measured by Gini index) out of all the countries studied. Simply put, the people in these countries are “W.E.I.R.D” relative to the rest of the world. The researchers also point out that social media cannot be an explanatory factor for the rise in teen suicides, since all countries studied throughout the world have the same media access as American teenagers do. If social media was the key variable that explains the rise in teen suicide, we’d be seeing comparable rises in most other countries. But we don’t see that in the data.
The study authors also ran analyses examining whether the places with an increase in teen suicides also had a greater increase in social media usage compared to the other countries. They did not find any statistical difference. They also looked at the proportion of young people who used social media for more than one, three, or six hours per day, and it was also not statistically different across those countries. Simply put, social media usage does not appear to be different across the countries with rising vs. flat suicide rates.
If you’re interested in looking at other countries besides those discussed in this research paper, Our World In Data provides a resource based on data from the World Health Organization. The same decrease in adolescent suicides over the past decade can also be found in countries such as New Zealand, Russia, Argentina, India, and Iran. For other countries such as Israel, Cuba, Norway, and Denmark there is virtually no change across this period.
What do all these countries have in common? This is for future research to discover. Some studies show that cultural factors such as strong social norms are a variable that predicts suicide in various countries, but this does not necessarily explain stability or changes in youth suicides across time. It would also be useful to consider specific subpopulations (e.g., young secular girls/women on the political left), to see if there are trends in suicide-related distress occurring in other countries besides America.
One thing does seem clear. The suicide rate among young people is not increasing throughout most countries around the world over the past decade, or even since the year 2000. Furthermore, we cannot blame social media for the rise in suicide among American teenagers. The data simply do not support this conclusion, for the simple reason that teenagers in other countries also have access to the same media that we do. It would be unwise and incorrect to declare that social media usage plays a role in suicidality.
Harrington, J. R., Boski, P., & Gelfand, M. J. (2015). Culture and national well-being: Should societies emphasize freedom or constraint?. PLoS One, 10(6), e0127173.
Padmanathan, P., Bould, H., Winstone, L., Moran, P., & Gunnell, D. (2020). Social media use, economic recession and income inequality in relation to trends in youth suicide in high-income countries: a time trends analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 275, 58-65.
QuickStats: Suicide Rates for Teens Aged 15–19 Years, by Sex — United States, 1975–2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2017;66:816. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6630a6External.