Scientists, doctors and parents have a growing awareness of links between mental health and social media in the form of cyberbullying and more. But what’s surprising is that taking away cellphones from teens can also trigger suicidal thinking or attempts.
Dr. Kyle Johnson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, sees young patients who come into the emergency room in psychiatric crisis, often prompted by a family conflict over technology usage.
“What we are seeing clinically is that precipitously taking away a smartphone is associated with youth threatening or attempting suicide,” he says. “The majority of teens and children who attempt suicide do it very impulsively; they aren’t planning it in advance. Studies show they make up their minds and do it within minutes or hours.”
Often the triggering event begins when parents become distressed about digital technology use, Johnson observed, such as discovering inappropriate behaviors like cyberbullying and sexting. The parents may rip the phone away and say things like, “you’re done with this.”
“Unfortunately, it’s a fairly common story,” Johnson says. “When parents want to give a consequence for behavior, they go after the tech because that seems to have the most meaning to the teenager. Rightly or wrongly, this is how kids connect with their peers now. When we rip the tech out of their hands, they can see that as their world disappearing. I’m definitely not saying there shouldn’t be consequences to behavior, but a better understanding of what these devices mean to vulnerable kids is needed.”
A study in Utah of teen suicides found that a technology takeaway precipitated as many as 1 in 10 suicides. Johnson noted that suicide is the leading cause of death in people 10-34 years old, and that Oregon ranks 17th in the nation for death by suicide in ages 10-24.
“These devices have social importance to kids, who represent the first generation growing up with this technology,” he says. “Socializing outside the family unit is a major developmental task for teenagers. These tools for doing that shouldn’t be ripped away during a time of family upset to punish because what we see is that can precipitate dangerous behavior.”
Because personal devices will be part of the foreseeable future, Johnson recommends talking to children about safe behaviors early and often, including setting limits to allow for other activities. If parents feel they need to take a phone away, they should be calm and give a specific time or conditions for return of the phone so it’s clearly not forever, he suggested.
“Conversation is always a good place to start,” Johnson says. “Ask your child to talk about why they did what they did and share your worries for them. It’s our job as parents to set limits, especially for the younger kids. Take advantage of parental controls and other monitoring apps that can be useful in the early years. As with anything, moderation is the rule. Find alternative ways for teens to have consequences, such as an extra family contribution like weeding or helping to make dinner.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Shortly after writing this story, I was in the emergency room with one of my children for a health condition. While waiting, I witnessed the very topic in this article. A sobbing mother saying her daughter had tried to commit suicide after the mother took the teen’s cellphone away. Please forward this to every parent you know! This is a real and unanticipated consequence for many families.