Possible link found between some Utah teen suicides, electronic devices

Stock Photo | St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Researchers studying a spike in teen suicides in Utah found that 18 of the 150 youngsters who took their own lives in a five-year period had recently lost privileges to use their electronic devices such as phones, tablets and gaming systems, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report made public Thursday.

The report was released after outside researchers last month issued findings based on CDC data showing an increase in suicide rates among teens across the U.S. over the 2010-2015 period occurred at the same time social media use surged. Teen suicides had declined in the two previous decades.

Both reports stop short of blaming electronics and social media for the rise in suicides, but say the findings beg for more research on the topic.

The findings add to a growing body of research that raises serious questions about whether young people who spend many hours on social media are more at risk for relationship problems, said Michael Friedrichs, a Utah state epidemiologist who was among those who spoke at a Thursday news conference in Salt Lake City.

More than half — 55 percent — of the Utah suicides from 2011-2015 had experienced a recent crisis, most of which were family or dating relationships, the report found.

“A social media connection or a phone connection is not a substitute for a real connection,” Friedrichs said. “People need to go outside…. There is a lack of connectedness that is not satisfied by being tethered to a gadget.”

Utah requested the federal investigation to get more in-depth research done after the rate of suicides among youth 10-17 more than doubled from 2011-2015.

The peak of 44 youth suicides in 2015 marked an all-time high — and was more than double the yearly average from the previous two decades, state figures said. The 2015 rate — 11.1 youth suicides per 100,000 — was also more than double the national rate.

The rate has decreased slightly in 2016-2017, but remains much higher than ever recorded previously, according to state data.

The federal researchers did not find a single factor driving the increase, but found that mental health issues seem to be a common factor with 35 percent of the victims diagnosed with some kind of mental health issue and 31 percent depressed when they died, the report found.

The report found that nearly 8 in 10 who killed themselves from 2011-2015 were men.

The Utah report doesn’t break down why each of 18 victims lost their electronic devices, but said it was a combination of punishment by parents or the devices breaking.

Too much technology and social media can also deprive kids of sleep, create unhealthy social comparisons and extend bullying from schools to the cyber world, said Kimberly Myers, the state’s suicide prevention coordinator, a position created four years ago as a result of the rising rates.

The investigators sought to get more information about a possible risk group: LGBT teens. They were able to determine the sexual orientation of fewer than one-third of the victims. Among those 40, researchers concluded six of them were gay, lesbian or bisexual.

In Utah, where as many of two-thirds of the state’s 3 million residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, LGBT youth have struggled to find acceptance.

That has led LGBT advocacy groups to assert in recent years that the rise in suicides could be linked to these teens’ struggles.

The federal investigation backed up a finding by state officials that a small fraction of suicide victims were definitely gay or lesbian. State officials have said, however, that more needs to be done to assess whether sexual orientation was a factor with the victims. State Sen. Jim Dabakis said he’s been to four funerals for LGBT suicide victims and questioned how there could only be a total of six over that five-year span.

Utah hired a new epidemiologist, Michael Staley, who is helping the state medical examiner with death investigations and hopes to be able to find out more details about the victims and possible contributing factors, including sexual orientation.

Staley said there’s a lot of stigma with questions about a teen’s sexual orientation, which is why he’ll be talking with multiple friends and family who knew the person.

The Utah Department of Health provided these suicide-related resources:

  • To get involved in suicide prevention efforts in Utah or to find a suicide prevention training near you, click here.
  • Those experiencing suicidal thoughts can reach out for free, confidential help 24/7 by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or by clicking here.
  • The SafeUT Crisis Text & Tip Line app is also available for download.
  • Suicide prevention resources for LGBTQ youth are available by clicking here.

Written by BRADY McCOMBS, Associated Press

St. George News contributed to this story.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed

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  • ladybugavenger December 1, 2017 at 7:47 pm

    There’s a link between everything if you look for it.

    Suicide is the work of the devil, just like murder is…..choose Jesus!

  • commonsense December 2, 2017 at 11:43 am

    Adolescent depression and suicide seem to be pervasive. In my entire high school experience, we had one suicide amongst 2000 students over four years. I can’t remember a single friend that suffered from depression.

    The reasons for today’s troubled kids is complex but certain things stand out. Exercise was my life growing up. I walked to school. We had no school buses. After school I rode my bike or walked to a friend’s home. We played outside, no TV, cell phones, iPad, computers, video games.

    Nutrition was different back then. My mom bought groceries and made dinner. We ate fruit, vegetables and meat, no pizza, chicken nuggets and Diet Coke.

    Maybe parenting is the biggest difference. My folks encouraged accountability and never protected my feelings or let me avoid consequences. I was responsible for my own entertainment and ultimately, my own happiness. I was taught to deal with bullies and adversity in general, no coddling.

    • comments December 2, 2017 at 2:10 pm

      Back in my day, if you were bullied at school, you at least had your home life you could go back to for some peace. I was bullied a bit in junior high. I guess with all this social media garbage kids can basically torment one another 24hrs a day. An overly connected world that there really is no escape from. I think it was a better world without cell phones and social media in general. I’m old I know, but life was simpler and more enjoyable. It’s my view that humanity mostly is able to find the very worst ways to use a new technology, at least the worst ways tend to take priority over the good.

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