A dark side of technology: Smartphones, social media can adversely affect children’s mental health


The ills of social media and smartphone use have been harped upon ad nauseum—often in some kind of anecdote picturing a bunch of teens around a table, noses firmly pressed into their phones, ignoring each other and oblivious to the world around them.

It can be a little disingenuous, but there is truth to the analogy—even if the truth is more abstract than literal. While on the surface the use of technology may seem social and fulfilling, the long-term effects of constant smartphone (and by virtue of that, social media) use are little understood, said Jack Hinrichs, a licensed therapist based out of New Brighton and the director of education and training for Nystrom & Associates LTD.

Though, he noted, the initial prognosis is bleak.

“It has a much bigger impact than we have any idea of, so far. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of the kind of impact it has,” Hinrichs said. “From 2007 to 2015, the suicide rates doubled among teen girls and they went up among teen boys about 30 percent. Overall, they’ve gone up almost one-third, about 30 percent in the last seven or eight years.”

These trends indicate a significant shift in 2012, per a study published by the academic journal Clinical Psychological Science in November. Complementing Hinrich’s assessment, the report noted suicide attempts by teens aged 13-18 increased 33 percent between 2010 and 2015, with a sizable spike in 2012. While the typical teen stressors—such as homework burden or academic pressure, not to mention economic hardships—didn’t see a notable change, smartphone usage crossed an eye-opening threshold: More than half of American teenagers had their hands on a smartphone that year. By 2015, that figure had climbed to 73 percent.

Adolescence, or primarily the teen years between 12-18, represents a time when most people are facing a “crisis” they must overcome to establish who they are and what their identity means to them on an emotional, psychological, physical and sexual understanding, Hinrichs said. People who struggle to overcome these obstacles and fail to establish a grounded sense of self are prone to mental health issues, some that are associated with suicide.

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