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Girls’ Suicide Spike Is Raising Questions About the Role of Social Media

May 17, 2019, 6:09 PM UTC

A troubling spike in the suicide rate among young girls is prompting leading researchers to ask questions about the role of social media in adolescent mental health.

A study published Friday in the JAMA Open Network led by Donna Ruch, a research scientist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, analyzed suicide trends in 10- to 19-year-olds between 1975 and 2016. The rate of suicide decreased from the early 1990s until 2007 but has increased in years since for both genders.

While boys die by suicide at a higher overall rate than girls, female youth suicides have surged most in recent years. In the 10- to 14-year-old age group, the rate of suicide increased by 12.7 percent for girls and 7.1 percent for boys since 2007.

The data show the gap known as the “gender paradox” in suicide—wherein males typically die by suicide at a rate higher than females, while females report suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide at higher rates than males— appears to be closing.

“We really wanted to look at this and say ‘Hey wait a minute, is this just a phenomenon, is it an occurrence, is it a blip or are we seeing a trend?’” Ruch said.

Her paper concludes the gap is narrowing most among those 10- to 14-year-olds. “We want to look at treatments, look at interventions, and really take into account the unique needs of girls versus boys.”

The study wasn’t designed to investigate why the rate of suicide is increasing among young people, but other researchers who looked at the data suggest the prevalence of social media could be an avenue to explore.

“The fact that social media has become a primary forum for interpersonal engagement in adolescence, a developmental period when social contact is rapidly rising and becoming increasingly important to well-being, makes this an area of great potential influence and importance,” wrote Joan Luby, of Washington University School of Medicine, and Sarah Kertz, of Southern Illinois University, in an opinion piece in JAMA Open Network.

More than 95 percent of youth are now connected to the internet in some form, they point out. Girls’ use of social media could be “more likely to result in interpersonal stress,” a factor implicated in youth suicide, according to Luby and Kertz.

The pair noted that girls use social media more frequently than boys and are more likely to face cyberbullying.

“Increasing rates of suicidality may be the ‘canary in the coal mine’ signaling important health concerns arising from the increased and pervasive use of social media affecting child and adolescent development,” Luby and Kertz wrote.