Smartphones: Are They To Blame For Rise In Teenage Self-Harm?

By Paul Fuhr 12/01/17

Some experts suggest that screen time may play a larger, more insidious role in teen mental health issues than previously thought.

upset teen sitting on bedroom floor

The number of middle-school girls visiting the emergency room with self-inflicted injuries is on the rise, a new study says. Researchers from the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control completed a comprehensive 15-year study of ER visits that revealed the disturbing trend.

The study examined visits for non-fatal, self-inflicted wounds among individuals aged 10 to 24. Data was collected from 66 hospitals worldwide between 2001 and 2015, which looked into injuries caused by self-poisoning, cutting and drug overdose. While 14,000 boys were part of the study, a whopping 29,000 girls visited the ER due to self-harm in that exact same time period. The sharpest increase was seen among girls aged 10 to 14.

As reported by The Washington Post, “girls 10 to 14 who inflicted self-pain were relatively stable before 2008 but escalated in the years since.” After 2009, self-inflicted injuries rose 8.4% every year. “It is unclear why the rate of self-injury among younger teens has climbed,” the Post wrote, “though some experts say it could be because of the girls' access to smartphones and Internet bullying.”

The second-leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 24 in 2015 was suicide, the story added. That said, while every injury was intentional, not all of them were suicide attempts. Still, the upward trend in self-harm "should be of concern to parents, teachers, and pediatricians,” Dr. Mark Olfson, a Columbia University psychiatry professor, told the Associated Press. “One important reason to focus on reducing self-harm is that it is key risk factor for suicide.” 

Many researchers believe the sharp increase in self-harm and suicide among teenagers born after 1995 is because they “are more prone to mental health issues than millennials,” the Post noted.

While some argue that financial insecurity following the recession and increased homework demands have taken a dramatic toll on teenagers, there is strong evidence that there’s another culprit: smartphones. Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psych professor, recently wrote that all signs point to the rise of digital screens.

“Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens,” Twenge said, citing data that showed how the number of U.S. teens demonstrating classic depression symptoms “surged” by 33% in national surveys. She also reflected on how the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide had jumped by 31%.

Smartphones “crossed the 50% threshold in late 2012—right when teen depression and suicide began to increase,” Twenge said, suggesting a link between screen time and self-harm.

By 2015, the number of teens who owned a smartphone had climbed to a staggering 73%.

Millennials aren’t the only generation to suffer from mental health problems, Twenge acknowledged. She noted that “genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma can all play a role” when it comes to depression, angst and suicide. Still, screen time plays a much larger, more insidious role than others recognize.

“Some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression because of too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three,” Twenge said.

Regardless of the underlying reasons, data clearly shows that teens who spent more than five hours or more online are 71% more likely to be at risk for suicide.

It’s clear that statistics like these aren’t simply alarming so much as they’re calls to action. Between the CDC study and the data cited by experts like Dr. Twenge, there’s as much of a need to improve prevention efforts as there is for teens to connect to people, not just their devices.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.