Beware of Clickbait Headlines That Promote A Causation Link of Suicide to Social Media & Gaming
I saw this article pop up in the social media, “Excessive Social Media Use Linked to Increased Suicide” As I read this article, the author stated, “… a new long-term study conducted by Brigham Young University (BYU) shows an ‘alarming’ link between excessive social media use and increased suicide risk.” This study is now being heralded by some special interest groups as proof positive that social media and gaming are not good for teens from a mental health perspective (1).
If there is one thing that Brandon has taught me from his academic research expertise, don’t believe the headline, read the study. As a result, I actually found the study, “Suicide Risk in Emerging Adulthood: Associations with Screen Time over 10 years” (2). This is a longitudinal study that was conducted over a 10yr period that followed 500 teens. Notice the actual title of this study doesn’t reflect the clickbait title of the article mentioned in the first paragraph.
I’m no Ph.D., so reading an academic study can be challenging for us mere mortals, so I often turn to Ph.D. and MD experts who I respect, that can turn academic research into information that most of us non-academics can understand so that I can share it with parents. As I result, I reached out to gaming research experts Dr. Rachel Kowert (Ph.D.), Dr. Patrick Markey (Ph.D.), and Dr. Tyler Black (MD) who is one of Canada’s leading adolescent emergency psychiatrists, with a specialty in suicide research. I provided all three a link to this study and asked them for their feedback.
All three stated to take the study with a grain of salt. In fact, Dr. Markey provided some research to show that self-reported studies, such as the one that spawned this article, are notorious for not showing the true relationship of actual media use (3) As Dr. Markey stated in a Tweet, “people suck at estimating their screen time”, “almost all previous research examining screen time have used these bad estimates”, and “it is these errors in estimates that are related to bad things – not actual screen time”
Dr. Black in a Tweet stated specific to this study, “….I’m just guessing here but I’d estimate about ten million confounders that are interfering with a ten-year outcome” For us non-academics, a confounder is a factor(s) other than the one being studied (social media/gaming) that could distort or mask the effects of another variable on the issue being studied (suicide) (4). Dr. Black further stated in a Tweet, “the better the research, the smaller the effect of screen time” on mental wellness.
If there is one thing I learned in 30 years of policing, suicide is often multifactorial. Trying to blame one thing like social media or gaming as the cause, is being willfully blind to this fact. However, I must emphasize that the BYU research did not find such a “causation” but rather an association in a very narrow circumstance and cohort. Unfortunately, the moral panic headline “Excessive Social Media Use Linked to Increased Suicide” doesn’t reflect this fact to most parents.
A question that I have and was not considered in this study, “are teens who are experiencing depression or suicidal ideations using social media and gaming as a coping mechanism for a mental wellness challenge?” This is something that I have heard from a significant number of the 500,000 teens that I have presented to. This could have also been one of the confounders that Dr. Black mentioned. In fact, Dr. Kowert stated, “there is lots of research that is saying this” and provided a link to support her statement (5). Here’s another great report from the Mental Health Commission of Canada titled, “Mental Health, Technology and You” that also supports this fact (6).
I also think it is important that parents look at the totality of good academic peer-reviewed research that looks at gaming and mental wellness such as:
A 2020 University of Oxford study found, “contrary to many fears that excessive game time will lead to addiction and poor mental health, we found a small positive relationship between gameplay and well-being” (7)
A 2020 study published in the “Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry” One of the study conclusions, “No support emerged for concurrent or prospective relations between Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) and psychiatric symptoms, except in one case: increased IGD symptoms forecasted reduction in anxiety symptoms. Observed co-occurrences between IGD symptoms and mental health problems can mainly be attributed to common underlying factors.” (8)
2020 Radbound University study that found, Young people who game with friends build stronger ties” (9)
Gaming can also provide teens with disabilities (10), or who may not necessarily fit in with a traditional school sport; a place to find community with others, and to even make a living or find a future career (11), or even find a loving relationship (12).
I’m not going to lie, the study that spawned this article did peek my interest specific to the causation vs correlation debate surrounding social media and gaming, and its relationship to youth mental wellness. However, after reaching out to the experts that I trust to help me understand academic studies, combined with all the other research that I mention in this article, I believe that this study only confirms the fact that when it comes to social media, gaming, and mental wellness, it’s all about healthy balanced proportioned consumption. Like it or not, passive disengagement overconsumption is never healthy, no matter what the activity.
Healthy teen gaming is all about proper sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, ensuring a diversity of activities, and not turning down other opportunities to learn new skills outside of gaming. It’s all about “balance”
Our golden rules that we teach to families when it comes to gaming:
For younger children, no gaming in the bedroom, especially at night
Don’t use gaming as a digital pacifier or babysitter
Set rules and times for gameplay as soon as your child starts to game online
Enforce transition period between gameplay and bedtime
Give your child a 20 min, 10min, 5min warning before shutting down game time if needed. Don’t have them stop cold turkey
Get your child to teach about the game and participate
In fact, there is research from Arizona State University that shows there are great positives when parents and kids play video games together (13).
As we like to say, “When we share our concerns with our kids about their onlife world, we should do so in a way that ties into where they are today, and is relevant to their life and appeals to their intelligence and experience. This will help them make good onlife decisions.” Gaming is where our kids are today, especially during COVID.
Digital Food for Thought