Thursday, September 21, 2017

Up But Still Down

The Atlantic this month had an article that smartphones are driving up teen depression and suicide. The author stated that those levels have dramatically risen since 2012, the year more than half the population had smartphones. And that's it's worse than ever, at least since the 1930's is the implication. That's startling.

To be fair, the author does specifically say that some behaviors are radically changing.

However, a little fact checking shows that suicide and depression rates are increasing...but overall they're lower than they were 25 years ago, long before the extensive use of mobile phones and before the real appearance of smartphones. In 1991, 29 percent of high schoolers contemplated suicide. There wasn't cyber-bullying back then. This was 10 years before MySpace and other dominating social media. In 2015, the rate of suicide contemplation was 17.7 percent.

For some reason 2009 was the low for this 25 year period for suicide contemplation, suicide planning and suicide attempts. It's also near the low for actual injury requiring medical attention from the suicide attempts. Any ideas? Want teenagers to be more mentally healthy--create an economic crisis??

We know that 'screen time' is increasing. And let's quantify that screen time is not network television. I doubt total media time has changed much in the past 25 years. According to the BLS, total leisure time related to TV, games and computer use is virtually unchanged from 2.58 hrs in 2003 to 2.73 hrs in 2016 (for those 15 years-old and older).  But we've shifted from half-hour, one-hour television shows to uninterrupted gaming, entertainment and social media. As one expert says, we had natural 'stops' in our consumption (e.g. the show's over). Today we have few. We also have seen evidence that certain screen time behaviors make us less happy--like gaming and social media--and we're spending 3x as much time in those activities than the 'screen time' activities that make us happy--education, news, reading, exercise, weather...

No doubt these effects are being experienced by teenagers. I wonder if the levels will ever get to those of the early 1990s.

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