Spending time in front of a screen increases children’s risk of suicidal behaviour

US researchers found a 9% increase in suicidal behaviours two years later in children who spent an hour longer than average in front of a screen

21st March 2023 about a 3 minute read
“Screen usage can lead to cyberbullying, poor eating habits, isolation and disrupted sleep – all of which can worsen mental health. It also increases exposure to potentially anxiety-provoking or otherwise distressing content.” Dr Jason Nagata, UCSF Benioff Children Hospitals

The more time children spend in front of a screen, the more likely they are to display suicidal behaviour two years later, a study has found.

Each extra hour spent in front of a screen was linked to an increased risk of 9% two years later, the researchers say. Amongst the type of activities screens were used for, “texting, video chatting, watching videos, and playing video games were most strongly associated with suicidal behaviors at two-year-follow-up,” they write.

The research, carried out by a team from the University of California and published in Preventive Medicine, looked at a US cohort of 11,633 children aged 9-11, using data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, a long-term study of brain development. The researchers used logistic regression analyses to determine the associations between baseline self-reported screen time and suicidal behaviours, based on the Kiddie Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia (KSADS-5) at two-year-follow-up. The average baseline screen time reported by participants was four hours a day.

One of the authors, Dr Jason Nagata of UCSF Benioff Children Hospitals, said: “The risk was highest with texting, followed by video chatting, watching videos, and playing video games. Social media didn’t show an effect, but that may be because, technically, kids aren’t allowed to be on social media platforms until they are 13 (though some still are), so we didn’t have as much data there.”

Exposure to distressing content

Time spent on screens “often displaces time spent on in-person socializing, physical activity and sleep – all of which are good for mental health,” Nagata said. “Screen usage can lead to cyberbullying, poor eating habits, isolation and disrupted sleep – all of which can worsen mental health. It also increases exposure to potentially anxiety-provoking or otherwise distressing content.”

Nagata said it was not yet clear whether screen use caused suicidality, or whether the increased odds of suicide was a result of children who were already depressed being more prone to using screens. The research paper offers a number of possible explanations for the relationship, including exposure to bullying, hate speech and graphic content, and higher sedentary time and lower physical activity, which can negatively affect mental health.

He added that not all screen time was bad for children. “Screens can be helpful in some cases, like for kids who, say, are LGBTQ and don’t have real-life access to support, and to stay in touch with friends and family who live far away,” he said.

Parents should take a ‘hands-on’ approach

His advice to parents of pre-teens was to take a “hands-on” approach, such as “using parental controls and keeping them off social media until they are 13. This time, during early adolescence, is when you set the behaviours that will help kids develop healthy screen habits later on.”

The research supports findings by previous studies. An analysis by John Burn-Murdoch in the Financial Times shows that in several countries, rates of depression amongst teenagers started to rise steeply after 2010, when smartphones became widely available. “Digital socialising has displaced in-person gatherings,” the analysis notes. “The share of US teens who meet up in-person with friends less than once a month stood at 3 per cent between 1990 and 2010, but reached 10 per cent by 2019, meanwhile the share who say they are ‘constantly online’ has now reached 46 per cent.”

Burn-Murdoch notes that “British teens who spend five or more hours a day on social media are at two to three times greater risk of self-harm than their less-online peers.” He also points to research showing that reducing time on social media improves mental health.

FCC Insight

This study from the University of California supports other research suggesting that excessive screen time can have a detrimental effect on children’s mental health. As the researchers point out, however, correlation does not equal causation and we can’t be sure that it is the screen time itself that leads to children becoming mentally unwell, or whether unhappy children are more likely to spend time in front of a screen. We also don’t know whether it is screen time on its own that might be leading to increase suicidality, or whether it is exposure to specific types of content such as self-harm images or cyberbullying that is the culprit. It may be that the right type of content (support groups, for example) can be helpful in particular circumstances. We need further research to investigate the causes behind this worrying finding.