Is social media fueling teen suicide?

Credit: Victor Kerlow

Parents blame stress for the suicides of two 17-year-old girls in Plano, Texas. Two boys at New York City’s Fordham Prep jumped in front of trains a few weeks apart. The youth suicide rate has been rising since 2007, reports the Centers for Disease Control.

Social media may be fueling teen suicide by encouraging young people to become “disconnected from the reality of their own existences,” writes Dr. Keith Ablow.

Facebook, Twitter, Tinder and the like have made them think of themselves as mini-reality-TV versions of themselves. Too many of them see their lives as a series of flickering photos or quick videos. They need constant doses of admiration and constant confirmation of their tenuous existence, which come in the form of Facebook “likes” and Twitter “retweets.”

Heroin use is spreading, writes Ablow. “Heroin is just the powdered equivalent of text messaging, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the technology drugs Americans— especially American teen— are mainlining every single day.”

Young people are “increasingly fascinated with dramas about vampires and zombies,” he adds. “They know something about the walking dead.”

Teen drug use falls — including marijuana

Drug and alcohol use is falling for U.S. teens, according to the 2015 Monitoring the Future Survey. “Teen marijuana use has fallen slightly over the past five years, at a time when four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana and 23 others allow medical use,” notes the Washington Post.


The survey of 8th- , 10th- and 12th-graders has been conducted since 1975 by the University of Michigan and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). For most illegal drugs, use is at or near record lows.

Teens are less likely to see marijuana use as harmful. Yet they’re not toking up.

“That’s what’s been surprising to me and other researchers,” Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of NIDA, told U.S. News. “We’ve now had five years of consistent declines in perceived harmfulness and the use rates have been reasonably steady – or dropping slightly this year.”

This year, 32 percent of 12th graders said regular marijuana use could be harmful, compared to 78.6 percent in 1991.

Teen suicide in Silicon Valley: Why?

I raised my daughter in Palo Alto. The public schools educated the children of high-tech engineers, entrepreneurs and Stanford professors. It was competitive — but also fun to put out the newspaper or compete in Mock Trial with so many smart kids.

In The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High Schools, Hanna Rosin tries to understand a series of suicides in 2009-10 and again in 2014-15.

Most of the kids who killed themselves stepped in front of a train.

For the most part, these students were doing well in school, had plenty of friends, seemed to be normal teens with normal parents. One girl had just gotten into the college of her dreams. A boy had just tried out for varsity basketball.

Adolescent dysfunction has a U-shaped curve, writes Rosin. Wealthy teens are doing as badly as poor teens, researchers say.

The rich middle- and high-school kids (Suniya) Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm. They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average.

Successful parents set high expectations for their children. High school students believe there’s one path to success — get into a “good” college — and little room for mistakes.

Many of the Palo Alto suicides were Chinese-American or had some Asian ancestry, writes Rosin. Was it Tiger Moms and Dads?

In addition to pressure to excel, “affluent kids felt remarkably isolated from their parents,” Luthar found. They got lots of parental attention — all that helicoptering — but didn’t feel close.

In the end, nothing really seems to explain why these adolescents ended their lives, concludes Rosin.

Nationwide, the adolescent suicide rate has “dropped dramatically since the 1990s,” perhaps because of better anti-depressants and suicide-prevention campaigns, she writes. But, in the past few years, teen suicide is on the rise again.

CDC: Schools start too early

Teens aren’t getting enough sleep to stay healthy because school starts too early, warns a Centers for Disease Control report. Five of six middle and high schools starts classes before 8:30 a.m.
Adolescents need 8.5 hours to 9.5 hours of sleep each night, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, “their natural sleep rhythms make it hard for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.,” writes Emma Brown in the Washington Post.

Tired teens do worse in school and are “more likely to be overweight or depressed . . . and to experiment with tobacco, alcohol and other drugs,” writes Brown.

The CDC, in its new report, calls insufficient sleep among the nation’s teenagers a “substantial public health concern,” and says that while parents can help by teaching their children good sleep hygiene (no cell phones in the bedroom, for example), it is important for schools to do their part by ensuring that class doesn’t start too early.

Delaying school start times by one hour increases math and reading scores, writes Finley Edwards in Do Schools Begin Too Early? “The effect is largest for students with below-average test scores, suggesting that later start times would narrow gaps in student achievement.”

Teen drug use falls as more states legalize

Teen alcohol and drug use declined in 2014, according to the 2014 Monitoring the Future study. The annual survey questions 40,000 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grade. “In 2014, a year when marijuana was all over the news and national attitudes toward the drug are relaxing, teen use actually trended downward,” notes the Washington Post.

“Cigarettes posted the sharpest drop in daily use, falling from nearly 25 percent of 12th graders in 1997 to about 7 percent in 2014,” reports the Post.

E-cigarettes — which made it on the survey for the first time — are more popular than tobacco cigarettes.

Frequent alcohol use has declined, though not as dramatically as smoking, while daily marijuana use has held steady or fallen since 2011.

“Both alcohol and cigarette use in 2014 are at their lowest points since the study began in 1975,” the study’s authors announced.

Teens are busy, stressed, exhausted

Too much schoolwork leaves teenagers stressed and exhausted writes Vicki Abeles in USA Today.

Since school started this month, my 15-year-old son, Zak, has been having trouble sleeping. He’s been waking up in the middle of the night, worrying if he’s finished everything on his to-do list.

Compared to many students in our San Francisco neighborhood, Zak has a “light” schedule. He goes to school, participates in jazz band and does his homework. By design, he’s not the classically overscheduled child.

And yet, Zak’s daily routine of school-band-homework still manages to eat up most of his day. When Saturday finally rolls around, he’s not the carefree teen I wish he could be. Instead, he’s anxious, calculating whether he has enough time to get together with friends in between weekend assignments.

Her anti-stress documentary, Race to Nowhere, which debuted five years ago, is airing on public television this week. Abeles is launching a social media campaign called Ban Busy.

Some high school students work very hard to get into selective colleges, which now require lots of AP courses and extracurriculars. What percentage of teens are on the high-stress track?

Study: ‘It gets better’ prevents depression

Telling ninth graders that people can change can lower the risk of depression, according to a University of Texas study published in Clinical Psychological Science. 

Lifelong struggles with depression often start with puberty, says David Yeager, assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study.

The study asked one group of incoming ninth graders to read a passage describing how individuals’ personalities are subject to change.

The passage emphasized that being bullied is not the result of a fixed, personal deficiency, nor are bullies essentially “bad” people. An article about brain plasticity and endorsements from older students accompanied the passage. After reading the materials, the students were asked to write their own narrative about how personalities can change, to be shared with future ninth-graders.

Students in the control group read a passage that focused on the malleability of a trait not related to personality: athletic ability.

Nine months later, “rates of clinically significant depressive symptoms rose by roughly 39 percent among students in the control group, in line with previous research on depression in adolescence.” However, students who were told personality is malleable showed no increase in depressive symptoms, even if they’d been bullied.

That jibes with research on the academic benefits of having a “growth mindset,” the belief that ability is malleable. And with the “it gets better” campaign aimed at gay teens facing abuse.

Attention deficit or sleep deficit?

Some cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may be a sleep disorder in disguise, writes Vatsal G. Thakkar, a psychiatry professor, in the New York Times.

Eleven percent of schoolchildren have been diagnosed with ADHD, he writes. Adult diagnoses are up too.

For some people — especially children — sleep deprivation does not necessarily cause lethargy; instead they become hyperactive and unfocused.

Adults and children are sleeping less, Thakkar writes.

The number of adults who reported sleeping fewer than seven hours each night went from some 2 percent in 1960 to more than 35 percent in 2011. Sleep is even more crucial for children, who need delta sleep — the deep, rejuvenating, slow-wave kind — for proper growth and development. Yet today’s youngsters sleep more than an hour less than they did a hundred years ago. And for all ages, contemporary daytime activities — marked by nonstop 14-hour schedules and inescapable melatonin-inhibiting iDevices — often impair sleep. It might just be a coincidence, but this sleep-restricting lifestyle began getting more extreme in the 1990s, the decade with the explosion in A.D.H.D. diagnoses.

Children with an A.D.H.D. diagnosis are likely to also have “sleep-disordered breathing like apnea or snoring, restless leg syndrome or non-restorative sleep, in which delta sleep is frequently interrupted,” he writes.

In a 2004 study, 34 children with A.D.H.D.  all showed a deficit of delta sleep, compared with only a few of the 32 control subjects.

Sleep disorders can be treated, writes Thakkar, who has a rare form of narcolepsy.

Early high school start times don’t fit adolescents’ sleep patterns, research shows. “Tor a teenager, a 7 a.m. alarm call is the equivalent of a 5 a.m. start for people in their 50s,” writes Russell Foster in New Scientist. It’s the hormones.

Can we make middle school less awful?

How Can We Make Middle School Less Awful? ask Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen on Slate. They call for giving  “as much attention to emotions and values” as to academics.

Every morning, the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders at Paul Cuffee Middle School in Providence, R.I. join together in what’s called a Circle of Power and Respect. In this “CPR,” they discuss anything from an upcoming science project to how to get boys to stop purposefully clogging the toilets.

Students write a social contract for the school.  Here’s this year’s version:

1. Respect the environment, yourself, and the community.
2. Cooperate: Teamwork makes the dream work.
3. Support each other even when the odds are against us.
4. Be yourself, do what you love, and try!
5. Be resilient: Fall 7 times, stand up 8.

When students behave badly, Principal Nancy Cresser asks which part of the contract they’ve broken.

“They know exactly which ones they’ve violated and they figure out how to fix it,” she says. Instead of storming off or pouting about the unfairness of the rules, Cresser says that Paul Cuffee students are OK with being held accountable. They’re the ones who created the rules, after all. So the students in question come up with a plan to fix what happened.

Creating a safe, supportive school pays off academically, write Glenn and Larsen. Although most students come from low-income families, Cuffee outscores a wealthier school across town in reading and math.

Start school later for more learning

Middle schoolers do better when school starts — and ends — later, according to a North Carolina study by economist Finley Edwards described in Education Next.

. . . delaying school start times by one hour, from roughly 7:30 to 8:30, increases standardized test scores by at least 2 percentile points in math and 1 percentile point in reading.

Starting early has the most effect on older middle schoolers, supporting the theory that hormonal changes make it hard for adolescents to get to sleep in the early evening, Edwards writes. Students get more sleep and have fewer absences. But late starts have other advantages:  With less unsupervised time after school, latebirds spend more time on homework and watch less TV.

“The effect of a later start time in both math and reading is more than twice as large for students in the bottom third of the test-score distribution than for students in the top third,” Edwards found.

Start times had no effect on elementary students, the study found, but elementary schools start later than middle schools, so that could obscure the effect.

Districts could swap elementary and secondary school start times to improve achievement without spending more on busing, Edwards suggests. Or districts could invest in more buses to start all schools at 8:30 or later. The achievement gain would be similar to the effect of cutting class sizes at a fraction of the cost.