Growing-up pains are central to the lives of adolescents. Many turn to digital apps to seek affirmation or recognition, but often find that the apps emphasise on social media bullying.

You’re ugly. Stop being a slut. You'll burn in hell.

These are just some examples of those benevolent and malicious comments that we often see on posts, photos or chat rooms. And some of them are certainly familiar for 18-year-old Kiara Padilla, as she received similar messages after downloading the app Sarahah – an anonymous friend-feedback app, which was originally intended as a tool that would allow employees to give anonymous feedback to their bosses.

“I downloaded it because everyone else around me was,” explains Kiara, “and being the slightly self-centred teen I am, I wanted people to leave comments on what they thought about me.”

Kiara’s situation is not an isolated case. Many teenagers around the world have been victim to cyberbullying, some of which may result in suicide. Why is that so?

Too much screen time

A study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science by Florida State University (FSU), suggested a link between excessive screen time and increasing suicide rates among adolescents. The researchers noted that teens between the ages of 13 and 18, who used their electronic devices for more than five hours a day, were at risk of becoming depressed and having suicidal thoughts.

Since 2010, US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noticed a dramatic rise in suicide rates among adolescents, especially girls. Five years later, the rates increased 31% more.

Psychology professor, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, stated that the depression did not prove causation of the suicidal behaviour, but there was a link and parents should consider looking into it.

Leading suicide researcher Thomas Joiner, FSU’s Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Psychology. Photo credit: Florida State University News
Leading suicide researcher Thomas Joiner, FSU’s Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Psychology. Photo credit: Florida State University News

Professor Thomas Joiner who co-authored the study, added, "parents should try to make non-screen activities as attractive as possible because a lot of them are attractive. It is fun to hang out with your friends or play basketball. Just remind kids those things are available, and they're just as fun as trading texts. That's the bottom line.”

Parenting and the lack of it

Parents are not exempted from the problem. Teenagers often need proper guidance and care from a strong support system – of which many turn to social media instead. Research findings by University of Cincinnati presented at this year’s American Public Health Association (APHA) conference noted that, adolescents who felt their parents were disengaged, were more likely to have suicidal thoughts than their counterparts. The results were based on a 2012 national survey in the US on adolescents 12 years and older about their perception of parental behaviour.

The study only took into account the adolescent’s perceptions of their parents’ behaviour that could lead to suicidal attempts, however, Keith King from University of Cincinnati’s health promotion and education doctoral program said, “youth perceptions are extremely important to suicidal ideation and attempts. Sometimes parents think they are involved, but from the perspective of the adolescent, they are not."

Adolescents aged 12 and 13 were the group most affected by parental behaviour, where they are five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts from parents who never told them they were proud of them. Interestingly, suicide rates in 12 and 13 year olds increased for those not helped with homework, or were not told they did a good job. In older adolescents of 16 and 17 years of age, suicidal thoughts are only three times higher when not told by parents they were proud of them.

King believes that basic parental behaviours may help. “Kids need to know that someone's got their back, and unfortunately, many of them do not. That's a major problem.” The study’s co-author, Rebecca Vidourek added, "a key is to ensure that children feel positively connected to their parents and family” – by telling them that they did a good job and getting involved with them.

Genes may play a role

Passing down of bipolar disorder genes is also a factor in increasing suicide risk among adolescents.
Passing down of bipolar disorder genes is also a factor in increasing suicide risk among adolescents.

However, it may not just be as simple as providing proper nurturing to the fragile mind of adolescents. Another study has found that aside from parental behaviour, parents also play a role in suicidal attempts in adolescence by passing down a bipolar disorder gene.

A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry stated that genetic susceptibility to bipolar disorder could increase the risk for suicide attempt. However, this only applies to those who also have experienced traumatic stress.

Lead author Holly Wilcox, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said that, such traumatic stress includes bullying, sexual abuse and domestic violence. Dr Wilcox commented, "this study uniquely examines suicidal and self-harm behaviours in a young cohort of individuals who are at increased risk of bipolar disorder themselves.”

Findings showed that the 307 adolescents with parents or relatives who had bipolar disorder, had more suicidal ideation and attempts, than those with parents who did not have specific mental disorder. This concludes that adolescents were highly susceptible to suicidal thoughts and attempts if they had a history of trauma alongside an evidence of genetic vulnerability. MIMS

Read more:
Researching the genetics of suicide
Bringing suicides down to zero – can it be achieved?
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