Teen Suicide–Mobile Phones Have a Clue

Posted on April 23, 2021 by

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Teen suicide–two words that should never appear next to each other. The alarming frequency of this terrifying occurrence has come to public attention during this pandemic. We tell ourselves: No surprise; it’s bad for teens to be stuck inside with parents and isolated from friends–the teen definition of hell.

Let’s not kid ourselves. According to CDC data, published Sept, 2020 suicide rates have been rising amongst teens and young adults for a decade. In 2017 more than 6700 young people took their lives. In a 2018 survey of 15,000 U.S high school students 7.4% reported having made an attempt during the previous 12 months.

For 10 to 24 year olds, suicides occur at the rate of 10.57 per 100,000 in 2017, up from 6.75 per 100,000 in 2007. Suicide is second only to accidents as the leading cause of death in that age group.

Could the rise of social media be one cause? Many parents and media pundits think so. An innovative study–the Mobile Assessment for the Prediction of Suicide (MAPS)–thinks the vast information from teens’ mobile devices might be used to help instead. This research is the work of Matthew Nock, the Harvard clinical psychologist, lead author on the 2017 analysis.

So what does cell phone data provide that the standard methodologies do not? A 2017 analysis of 365 suicide risk studies in the past 50 years found prediction slightly better than chance. Clinicians using standard methods ask teens about suicidal thoughts and or plans. There are 2 obvious problems with this approach, a third surprising one, and a fourth scary one.

Obviously, some patients may not share their suicidal impulses and may be less likely to do so if they have a plan. Then, of course, not all at risk teens meet regularly with a mental health professional.

The surprising information Nock shares is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, suicide “is not like depression, where people may experience the condition for months or years at a time.” Two thirds of people with suicidal thoughts do not make an attempt, even those with people with substance abuse, chronic illness, or access to lethal means.

The scary challenge is, as Nock says, “Suicide happens quickly and unexpectedly.”

Not that imminent risk means we don’t have a clue. The single biggest risk factor is previous suicidal behavior. Two-fifths of those who kill themselves have tried before. But how can we know who and when?

Randy Auerbach, a clinical psychologist on the MAPS research, having interviewed thousands of teens concerning their risk, puts the matter bluntly. “Kids are killing themselves in record numbers, and what we’ve traditionally tried to do isn’t working.”

From September, 2018,thruogh July 2022, Nock, Auerbach. Nicholas Allen, and other MAPS investigators extract specific cell phone data from high risk teens (ages 13-18) to help learn what makes some of them put thoughts into actions. The study includes 200 teens, 70 who have attempted suicide during the past 6 months and a second set of 70 with suicidal thoughts but no previous attempts. (This study is amongst several funded by the National Institute of Mental Health to predict short-term risk for suicide using smartphones and wearables.)

Cell phone data from a teen? Yikes! Where to begin? MAPS uses established data on suicidal behavior to gauge psychological pain. Tone of voice, music choice language use, and photos.

Faltering social relationships show up in mobile phone data. Auerbach’s group reported that “interpersonal loss” was a factor in adolescents hospitalized for attempted suicide in contrast to hospitalized peers with no previous attempts. Bullying or social rejection is often apparent on a teen’s digital life (is there another kind of life for a teen?)

And sleep disturbance; insomnia (easily measured directly and indirectly through mobile devices) during the previous week has been associated with suicide, according to a 2008 study which interviewed parents, siblings and friends of teen suicide victims.

So many questions: privacy? consent? parental involvement? Check out the study. https://connects.catalyst.harvard.edu/Profiles/display/116456371

Researching this important use of technology reminds me of a caution I offer to parents: don’t take away your teen’s mobile phone as a punishment. It isn’t just a phone; it’s a connection to their world. Rethink your punishment choice even more if you resort to phone restriction because that’s the only way to “get to” your teen. Punching anyone where it hurts the most breaks the bonds of trust between parent and child.

We are in a world moving faster than our comprehension. Let’s try to keep up; it’s our only option.