Time Spent on Social Media Increases Suicide Risk in Girls—But Not Boys

teen sisters on couch scrolling on cell phones

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Key Takeaways

  • A 10-year study found that a high level of early social media and/or television use in early adolescence, followed by increased use as children get older, is the most predictive of suicide risk in girls.
  • Parents can limit daily use and engage in conversations to prevent their kids from developing negative mental health effects related to screen time.

During a time of isolation, social media has provided a much-needed outlet for many teens staying inside and attending school remotely. But increased social media use doesn't come without its risks.

Researchers from Brigham Young University (BYU) in a 10-year study, found that teen girls experience higher suicide risk when they use social media for at least two to three hours a day, start this use at a young age, and increase their time spent on these apps over time.

The study began in 2009 when social media was not nearly as prevalent as it is today. But because they started early, researchers have been able to measure social media effects as it grows and develops, along with the impact of other types of media like television, video games, and different cell phone applications.

In addition to the data, Sarah Coyne, PhD, lead author and professor of human development at BYU, offers techniques for helping teens develop a healthy relationship to social media for other parents.

Coyne, who has five children, tells Verywell that TikTok is now becoming one of her 13-year-old daughter Hannah's pastimes. "My advice would be to start slow," she says. "We try to have Hannah do just about 15 to 30 minutes a day."

The data was collected as part of the Flourishing Families Project, and the study was published in Journal of Youth and Adolescence in early February 2021.

What This Means For You

Limiting your child's social media use, or just teaching them to be mindful about their experiences online, can protect their mental health and help keep social media as a positive place to connect.

Clear Patterns Among Girls

Through annual surveys distributed from 2009 to 2019, researchers measured media use and suicide risk over a 10-year period among 500 teenagers, half of which were female, who were between 12 and 15 years old when the study began.

To evaluate suicide risk, researchers administered the Revised Suicidal Behavior Questionnaire (SBQ-R), which asks about past attempts of suicide, frequency of suicidal thoughts, threat of suicide, and the likelihood of dying by suicide. Scores range from 3 to 18, with scores higher than 6 meaning the participant has clinical levels of suicide risk.

While there were no clear links between use and risk for boys and men, trends emerged for girls and women. Suicide risk increased when they:

  • Started using social media early (13 years or earlier)
  • Used it and/or watched television for at least two to three hours a day
  • Increased use time as they got older

In a press release, Coyne mentioned that this specific pattern mixed with young girls' social tendencies may make them more susceptible. “Research shows that girls and women, in general, are very relationally attuned and sensitive to interpersonal stressors, and social media is all about relationships," she said. These tendencies may make them more prone to negative mental health effects, due to constant comparison, fear of missing out, and potential cyberbullying experienced online.

For boys, video games were associated with increased suicide risk when they reported cyberbullying within the games, like live games where players speak to one another via headsets.

"The thing that surprised me the most was that there were no long-term predictors for boys," Coyne says, although the video games-cyberbullying link was identified in the short-term. In her research on media and mental health, there usually isn't such a wide difference in gender.

"It's not necessarily that social media is bad," Coyne says. "It's a particular pattern and a particular trajectory of social media. It's not about banning social media, but teaching kids to use it in healthy and effective ways."

Study Limitations

While the findings were statistically significant, Coyne adds that if she were to do the study again, she would like to expand and diversify the sample. "The population on the whole tends to be a little more affluent or middle class, so there's not a ton of diversity there," she says.

It should be noted, too, that the study did not measure suicide completions, or if any of the participants had attempted suicide. They did find that one of the participants died, although the cause wasn't clear. "It's hard to know whether people will actually attempt suicide from what we found," Coyne says.

Suicide Rare for Teens, but on the Rise

While researchers were collecting data, suicide rates were, and have been, on the rise in the U.S. The National Center for Health Statistics reported a 30% increase in the rate of death by suicide between 2000 and 2016—increasing 1% to 2% per year. At the same time, 50% more girls and women and 21% more boys and men died by suicide, making it the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2016.

Coyne adds that if you or someone you know has a child who's struggling with social media and mental health, it's important that they get the help that they need. "Sometimes professional help is warranted," Coyne says. "It's important to encourage parents to seek that out."

"It's a very small percentage of kids that would actually attempt suicide because of social media, but they do exist and we shouldn't minimize what they're going through, and how difficult it is as a parent to kind of watch your child go through those difficult things," she adds.

Best Practices for Social Media

Coyne, who is not only a researcher but a mother, recommends that parents monitor screen time and encourage open discussion about their kids' experiences. On her website, you can also find a social media curriculum, with videos that aim to foster mindfulness and reflection while using the tool.

In addition to limiting her daughter's social media use per day, Coyne also engages her in conversation, asking her how she feels when she's using TikTok: "We say, 'How are you feeling? Does TikTok make you feel good or bad today?'"

For now, her daughter is enjoying the platform and simply wants to make more videos, but Coyne is hopeful these conversations will help her become more mindful of her experiences.

"It's about helping our kids become critical thinkers around their own experiences, and that's scaffolded and modeled over time," she says. "I'm really hoping that someday there will come a time when she'll have a negative experience on it, and she'll say, 'You know what, this particular person I'm following makes me feel bad about myself.' Or maybe even, 'This particular platform that I'm using is bringing me down. What are some things that I can do to help my own mental health and my own experiences on social media?'"

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Coyne, S.M., Hurst, J.L., Dyer, W.J. et al. Suicide risk in emerging adulthood: associations with screen time over 10 years. J Youth Adolescence (2021). doi:10.1007/s10964-020-01389-6.

  2. Osman A, Bagge C, Gutierrez P, Konick L, Kopper B, Barrios F. The suicidal behaviors questionnaire-revised (SBQ-R): validation with clinical and nonclinical samples. Assessment. 2001;8(4):443-454. doi:10.1177/107319110100800409

  3. Brigham Young University News. 10-year BYU study shows elevated suicide risk from excess social media time for young teen girls.

  4. American Psychological Organization. By the numbers: An alarming rise in suicide.

By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.