Since 2008, an increasing number of young people have ended up in the emergency room due to self-inflicted harm. That’s according to a just-released analysis of more than 43,000 ER admissions between 2001 and 2015.
The report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows young people didn’t start hurting themselves at higher rates until 2008. But, since then, rates of self-harm among young men and women aged 10 to 24 have risen by 5.7 percent each year. And that’s a low-ball figure.
While the rate of self-harm among young men did increase, especially among boys aged 10 to 14, the uptick never reached “statistical significance,” according to the study’s authors. After removing boys from the equation, the report shows self-harm among young women has climbed 8.4 percent per year since 2008. Among girls 10 to 14, that annual jump was a staggering 18.8 percent.
Self-harm is a major risk factor for suicide, and the ER visits analyzed in the study included non-fatal suicide attempts.
The study data don’t explain why teen self-injury is surging, says study author Melissa Mercado, a behavioral scientist with the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. She says that based on the type of data that was collected, she can’t offer explanations as to what’s going on, but says these findings are consistent with previous reports that youth suicide and depression have shot up during the past decade.
Other experts are willing to point fingers—based on their own work on young people and mental health disorders. They say social media is a likely culprit.
“Over this time period [from 2008 to 2015], the largest change in teens’ lives is the growth of smartphone ownership and time spent online and on social media,” says Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and author of iGen, a book that explores how the lives of today’s kids are different from those of past generations.
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Twenge says, that, in light of recent studies showing rising rates of depression and suicide among teens, some experts have pointed to the economy or increased schoolwork as possible factors. But she says the economic and homework data don’t track with the rise in teen mental health issues the way smartphone ownership does.
“What’s most important to kids are their friends, and how they interact with them,” she says. And social media use in particular helps explain why the jumps in non-fatal harm were primarily among young women. “A fair amount of research has shown boys spend more time playing games online, while girls spend most of their time on social media,” she says.
While some new research shows online gaming may actually lower anxiety among young men, Twenge points to studies—including some of her own—that have linked social media use with higher rates of anxiety and depression.
“With girls, there’s a tremendous amount of importance placed on physical appearance and social status and reputation among friends—you know, who’s in and who’s out,” she explains. While boys, too, feel some of these pressures, she says they’re “paramount” in teen girls’ lives. “And social media heightens all of these things,” she adds. “There’s the pressure to take just the right selfie, or get the most [Facebook] likes.”
Others who’ve studied young adults and social media agree.
“I do think it is quite likely that social media use is contributing to the rise in adolescent non-fatal suicide attempts,” says Christine Ohannessian, director of the Children’s Center for Community Research at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. “Our research has indicated that the more time young people spend using social media, the more anxiety symptoms they experience and the more likely they are to experience an anxiety disorder.”
Apart from the fact that girls use social media more than boys, she says another factor might help explain why girls have ended up in the ER more than boys for self-inflicted injuries: “During adolescence, girls are much more likely to attempt suicide—however, boys are more likely to commit suicide,” she says.
She attributes this difference to the suicide methods young men and women employ. “Girls are more likely to use non-violent methods such as overdosing on pills,” Ohannessian says, “whereas boys are more likely to use violent methods such as guns.” (Poisoning was the most common reason young women ended up in the ER, the CDC report shows.) Still, a separate CDC report released in August found that suicide rates are increasing among girls ages 15 to 19; the rate more than doubled from 2007 to 2015.
Both Ohannessian and Twenge say more research is needed to hammer down the causes of young girls’ self-injury issues. But, Twenge adds, “This study is part of what is now an overwhelming body of evidence suggesting that something is going wrong in the lives of today’s teens.”
Considering the reports linking social media use to depression and suicide, it’s time to rethink young people’s technology habits, she says.