Commentary

Increased electronic media use and youth suicidality: What can clinicians do?


 

Pediatric suicide was an emerging public health crisis prior to COVID-19, and recent data indicate that pediatric suicide attempts continued to increase during the pandemic.1 In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency for pediatric mental health because of a surge in youth suicide attempts.2 Isolation mediated by the degradation of community and exacerbated by the pandemic, has been identified as a contributor to increasing pediatric suicidality.

It is impossible to understand this current public health crisis and to seek solutions without recognizing the ways in which the degradation of community and consequent social isolation play a central role. While the degradation of community and the isolation epidemic that preceded COVID-19 have been mediated by multiple factors, one factor associated with mental health problems in youth is electronic media use.3 During COVID-19, when physical distancing and virtual learning have been necessary to curb the spread, electronic media use has increased exponentially in the pediatric demographic. Some of this increase in screen time has been attributable to virtual schooling, but electronic devices also have become the only means by which kids can stay in contact with one another. While electronic communication has been viewed as an antidote to isolation, disturbing consequences associated with electronic media use have also been noted in our pediatric population.

Dr. Peter L. Loper, assistant professor in the department of neuropsychiatry and behavioral science at the University of South Carolina, Columbia

Dr. Peter L. Loper

In the health care system where I (P.L.L.) work as a pediatrician and a child and adolescent psychiatrist, electronic media use has been implicated in more than 90% of our inpatient admissions for suicidal ideation. Use of electronic devices has contributed to suicidal thoughts and attempts in most patients admitted to our acute crisis stabilization unit over the past year. Even more concerning, removal of cell phone privileges has also contributed to suicidal thoughts and attempts in many of our patients. During the pandemic, and in the absence of meaningful interpersonal interactions, many in our pediatric population have become even more dependent on electronic devices to cope with isolation. This has created an often-devastating irony, where the very devices already associated with mental health problems in youth are now being endorsed as “necessary” by mental health professionals.

So how does electronic media use relate to isolation and the continued degradation of community, and why might electronic media use be exacerbating pediatric suicide? One way we have coped with the deterioration of our communities has been the creation of the synthetic community-substitutes found on electronic devices. Unfortunately, our electronic devices create only an illusion of community, where interpersonal interaction occurs by way of inanimate objects, and by electronic text and ideograms. These become substitutes for genuine intimacy, personal contact, and reciprocity. Instead of engaging with one another, our youth are spending hours daily in isolation engaging with a piece of plastic. The mirage generated by pixels on a plastic screen creates an illusion of connectivity, but in reality, this only increases the isolation of our youth.

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