Increased Electronic Media Use and Youth Suicidality: What Can Clinicians Do?

Peter L. Loper, Jr, MD, MSED, and Dana S. Kaminstein, PhD

January 11, 2022

Pediatric suicide was an emerging public health crisis prior to COVID-19, and recent data indicate that pediatric suicide attempts continued to increase during the pandemic.1 In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children's Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency for pediatric mental health because of a surge in youth suicide attempts.2 Isolation mediated by the degradation of community and exacerbated by the pandemic, has been identified as a contributor to increasing pediatric suicidality.

It is impossible to understand this current public health crisis and to seek solutions without recognizing the ways in which the degradation of community and consequent social isolation play a central role. While the degradation of community and the isolation epidemic that preceded COVID-19 have been mediated by multiple factors, one factor associated with mental health problems in youth is electronic media use.3 During COVID-19, when physical distancing and virtual learning have been necessary to curb the spread, electronic media use has increased exponentially in the pediatric demographic. Some of this increase in screen time has been attributable to virtual schooling, but electronic devices also have become the only means by which kids can stay in contact with one another. While electronic communication has been viewed as an antidote to isolation, disturbing consequences associated with electronic media use have also been noted in our pediatric population.

In the health care system where I (P.L.L.) work as a pediatrician and a child and adolescent psychiatrist, electronic media use has been implicated in more than 90% of our inpatient admissions for suicidal ideation. Use of electronic devices has contributed to suicidal thoughts and attempts in most patients admitted to our acute crisis stabilization unit over the past year. Even more concerning, removal of cell phone privileges has also contributed to suicidal thoughts and attempts in many of our patients. During the pandemic, and in the absence of meaningful interpersonal interactions, many in our pediatric population have become even more dependent on electronic devices to cope with isolation. This has created an often-devastating irony, where the very devices already associated with mental health problems in youth are now being endorsed as "necessary" by mental health professionals.

So how does electronic media use relate to isolation and the continued degradation of community, and why might electronic media use be exacerbating pediatric suicide? One way we have coped with the deterioration of our communities has been the creation of the synthetic community-substitutes found on electronic devices. Unfortunately, our electronic devices create only an illusion of community, where interpersonal interaction occurs by way of inanimate objects, and by electronic text and ideograms. These become substitutes for genuine intimacy, personal contact, and reciprocity. Instead of engaging with one another, our youth are spending hours daily in isolation engaging with a piece of plastic. The mirage generated by pixels on a plastic screen creates an illusion of connectivity, but in reality, this only increases the isolation of our youth.

Human Evolution and Connection

Intimate social connectivity, woven together in our communities, was a fundamental mechanism for human survival. Historically, for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the community provided access to our fundamental needs, such as safety from predators and access to substantive nutrition.4 Community allowed our ancestors to survive and procreate, and facilitated their triumph over predation and disease.5 Our distinction as the dominant species on Earth has been afforded by our social connectivity. Unfortunately, in the virtual worlds of our electronic devices the intimate social connectivity of community is absent. Our children wander in isolation, left to navigate age-old evolutionary pressures in the absence of the fundamental advantage for our survival as a species.

Unlike the living, breathing bears and wolves that threatened our ancestors, in the virtual world of the electronic device children are stalked by invisible predators seeking sexual or monetary exploitation. Children are being consumed by digital advertising and social media platforms that perpetually reinforce the requirement of perfection, and they fall prey to cyberbullies who mercilessly disparage their imperfections. In their virtual worlds, where their value is predicated upon anonymous others' opinions, they succumb to the idea that they will never be enough.6 Their fundamental needs of competence and relatedness go unmet, and they lose their sense of purpose, belonging, and often their will to live. More importantly, absent from their children's virtual worlds, and preoccupied within their own, parents cannot protect their children from online predators, deflect the vicious attacks of cyberbullies, or reframe their children's imperfections as distinctive or empowering. They are unable to provide their children with the substantive interpersonal contact necessary for resilience and that bolsters their self-worth.

Human beings are inherently social creatures, who regardless of era require community to meet their fundamental needs. As the duration of daily screen time steadily increases, our youth are spending more and more of their waking hours living in isolation in an electronic world. Without the protective social connectivity of community, they are hunted by online predators, and they are consumed by the predatory culture of perfectionism that is contradictory to the reciprocal caretaking necessary to support their healthy development. Evolutionary biology informs us that, when children are isolated, they are susceptible to predation and disease. And in the socialized isolation of their electronic worlds, they are succumbing to predation and to the depressive diseases that are exacerbating the pediatric mental health crisis.

Creating and building community amid a pandemic has been challenging at best. However, now that we have better tools to fight COVID, it is important to encourage our young patients to reduce their nonacademic screen time, and to get outside and engage with others. Their mental health depends on it.

Loper is a pediatrician and child and adolescent psychiatrist at Prisma Health–Midlands in Columbia, S.C. He is an assistant professor in the department of neuropsychiatry and behavioral science at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Loper has no conflicts of interest. Kaminstein is an adjunct assistant professor at the graduate school of education and affiliated faculty in the organizational dynamics program, School of Arts and Sciences, at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. He is a social psychologist who has been studying groups and organizations for more than 40 years. He has no conflicts of interest.


1. MMWR. 2021 Jun 18;70(24):888-94.

2. Ray G. "Pediatricians, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists and Children's Hospitals Declare National Emergency in Children's Mental Health." 2021 Oct 19.

3. JAMA Netw Open. 2020(8):e2011381.

4. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2018 April:165(4):777-800.

5. The influence of predation on primate and early human evolution: Impetus for cooperation, in "Origins of Altruism and Cooperation. Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects." (Basingstoke, England: Springer Nature, 2011, pp. 19-40).

6. Media Psychology. 2020;23(1):52-78.

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