Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.

In a new paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country. All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.

What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.

All signs point to the screen

Because the years between 2010 to 2015 were a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment, it’s unlikely that economic malaise was a factor. Income inequality was (and still is) an issue, but it didn’t suddenly appear in the early 2010s: This gap between the rich and poor had been widening for decades. We found that the time teens spent on homework barely budged between 2010 and 2015, effectively ruling out academic pressure as a cause.

However, according to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73 percent of teens had access to a smartphone.

Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Of course, it’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online. But three other studies show that is unlikely (at least, when viewed through social media use).

Two followed people over time, with both studies finding that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness, while unhappiness did not lead to more social media use. A third randomly assigned participants to give up Facebook for a week versus continuing their usual use. Those who avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.

The argument that depression might cause people to spend more time online doesn’t also explain why depression increased so suddenly after 2012. Under that scenario, more teens became depressed for an unknown reason and then started buying smartphones, which doesn’t seem too logical.

What’s lost when we’re plugged in

Even if online time doesn’t directly harm mental health, it could still adversely affect it in indirect ways, especially if time online crowds out time for other activities.

For example, while conducting research for my book on iGen, I found that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide. We found that teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed. Since 2012, that’s what has occurred en masse: Teens have spent less time on activities known to benefit mental health (in-person social interaction) and more time on activities that may harm it (time online).

Teens are also sleeping less, and teens who spend more time on their phones are more likely to not be getting enough sleep. Not sleeping enough is a major risk factor for depression, so if smartphones are causing less sleep, that alone could explain why depression and suicide increased so suddenly.

Depression and suicide have many causes: Genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma can all play a role. Some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in.

But some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.

It might be argued that it’s too soon to recommend less screen time, given that the research isn’t completely definitive. However, the downside to limiting screen time – say, to two hours a day or less – is minimal. In contrast, the downside to doing nothing – given the possible consequences of depression and suicide – seems, to me, quite high.

The ConversationIt’s not too early to think about limiting screen time; let’s hope it’s not too late.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. Featured image courtesy of Library of Congress.

  • Donn Harris

    Hi Jean. I was a public school administrator during the years you mention, working with artistically talented students ages 11-18. I noticed, as did my colleagues all over the country, a marked increase in sudden onsets of depression, and many extreme cases in which kids just shut down, rapidly going from high functioning to missing some school to unable to get out of bed in the morning. We were observing the same thing, so at least we’re clear on the issue. I came to a much different conclusion about the root causes, however.

    As for technology, the access to personal smart phones, the Internet, social media, etc. was universal even in my urban environment, which is diverse racially and socioeconomically. I may notice expensive clothing or who eats sashimi grade tuna for lunch (and these features went across all ethnic groups as well); but I rarely needed to think about who had access to technology. I had cell phone numbers for students when I needed them; if I sent emails or Facebook messages they were answered, often within minutes; what you were able to find in the research about usage never rang true for me. Some kids were online more than others; the depressed kids always found other depressed kids, quickly becoming “besties” with a small group and clinging to one another as if in a lifeboat. Human interaction seemed to reinforce the depressed behavior. Many were constantly huddled in corners, mumbling and relaying their miseries. Our attempts to help, create counseling groups, get them to class, develop new plans, get their families involved, rarely made much difference. The downward spiral, once a certain negative momentum picked up, was rarely reversed.

    I was a parent throughout this time of two girls, in middle school and high school, the older one at my school for four years, so I come at this from many angles. I have no definitive answers, but the one pattern we began noticing was the students’ inability to rebound from the smallest setback, and the parents either sharing that inability and sense of futility, or fighting like mad for the school to take the blame, fix the problem, protect the child, and keep the whole complex package of teenage-hood together. The normal bumps and bruises of childhood were often too much for these kids. That is my most salient, if simplistic, observation. We’re doing something wrong early on, all of us. We are frightened of a competitive and harsh world and in trying to help our kids navigate through it create rigid academic standards (No Child Left Behind), inept systems of support (Special Education, my field before I went into administration) and take on parenting styles that miss the mark in shaping the delicate balance between authority and restraint. My best move as a parent was to back off my younger daughter when she was rebelling and lashing out. While the instinct to punish and restrict and “teach her a lesson” was surely present at the outset, another style ultimately proved effective: a quiet, consistent presence and the right level of help when it was requested, awareness but not panic when grades dropped — and eventually the light in her eyes returned and she found her way out of the tunnel. We were simply there, alert, watchful, but with appropriate space for her to work it out. This is just one man’s insights, but let’s be sure we look at all angles of life for our increasingly troubled teenage population. I hesitate to assign technology the devil’s role. In an unstable world where even the trusted adults seem flustered and unable to put together lives our kids can aspire to, I think we need to look at ourselves and what messages we send about hope and happiness in the 21st Century.