Let’s start with that troubling recent headline: “Suicides spike for 10 to 14 year-olds.”

It certainly succeeded in doing what headlines are meant to do—it got my attention. But, as usual, the headline is not the whole story.

The big worry

The National Center for Health Statistics recently released its latest study. The study showed the number of suicides in children aged 10 to 14 had increased in a statistically significant way between 1999 and 2014. The increase was greatest for girls in this age range.

Why the increase? No one knows at this point. There's no good data that establishes causality, only correlation. In the absence of any real answers, some researchers are pointing to increased use of social media by pre-teens as a possible factor.

There's so much emphasis on other kids having the perfectly fabulous life, it can create feelings of isolation and hopelessness.

Dr. Petra Steinbuchel, medical director of mental health and child development at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland

There are several studies (look here, and here) that suggest there is, indeed, a link between feelings of sadness or depression and social media use.

The more time young adults use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed.

According to recent research by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

And it's true that suffering from depression does increase a person's risk for suicide (as does anxiety, bi-polar disorder, and substance abuse).

But—and it's a big BUT—the jury is still out on whether heavy social media use is a cause of increased suicidal ideation or if the reverse is true. It's entirely possible that those kids who are already struggling with social isolation or mental illness may be heavier users of social media because it’s less intimidating than forming real-life relationships.

Maybe increased social media use doesn't cause depression, but is instead one of the effects of being depressed. In either case, there seems to be a correlation. This gives us, as parents, something to keep an eye out for while we wait for a definitive study to explain the rising suicide rate.

Beyond the scary headline

It's important to keep this in mind: no one is saying social media leads kids to suicide. Even the original study’s authors caution that it’s not possible to draw a conclusive cause-effect relationship from their data.

Dr. Steinbuchel from UCSF also agrees that experiences on social media alone don’t cause suicide in kids without underlying factors. She does suggest, however, that negative social interactions might be a contributing factor when they’re combined with proven risks like social isolation and mental illness. So it's helpful to be aware of what those risk factors are.

There’s also some reassurance to be found in the data itself. Despite the statistically significant uptick in suicides, the actual number of suicides in 10 to 14-year-olds is still relatively low compared to older age groups.

So let's not panic. Instead, let's look at this scary headline as an invitation to learn more, so that we can be better advocates for our kids and their friends.

What can parents do?

  • Recognize any underlying struggles your teen is facing. If your teen is prone to depression or anxiety, there may be a "vicious circle" effect between depression and social media you should keep an eye out for.

People who become depressed may turn to social media for support, but their excessive engagement with it might only serve to exacerbate their depression.

Dr. Brian Primack, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health

  • Follow your child's pattern of social media use. As noted earlier, there's no evidence that social media use is a trigger for suicide. But there is some evidence that heavy use correlates with increased depression or anxiety. So be aware that if your teen begins spending more time on social media, it may indicate more than just a Snapchat obsession. (If you're worried about social media use in general, read this for some compelling reasons why it's not necessarily something you should panic over.)

  • Know that some popular social media platforms are doing more to be proactive. When you search the popular blog site Tumblr for “depression,” “suicidal” or “hopeless” you get a message that asks, "Everything okay?" It includes links to resources on crisis intervention. Facebook allows people to report posts that suggest a user may be about to harm themselves.

We have teams working around the world, 24/7, who review any report that comes in. They prioritize the most serious reports, like self-injury, and send help and resources to those in distress.

  • Don’t ignore small signs of trouble. Sue Klebold, mother of one of the Columbine shooters, wrote an essay several years ago. In it, she shared her struggle with reconciling the boy she raised in a happy, “normal” home with the killer who took thirteen lives before taking his own.

I taught him how to protect himself from a host of dangers: lightning, snake bites, head injuries, skin cancer, smoking, drinking, sexually transmitted diseases, drug addiction, reckless driving, even carbon monoxide poisoning. It never occurred to me that the gravest danger -- to him and, as it turned out, to so many others -- might come from within. Most of us do not see suicidal thinking as the health threat that it is. We are not trained to identify it in others, to help others appropriately, or to respond in a healthy way if we have these feelings ourselves.

Sue Klebold

This is a tough problem, in part because there is very little research into which treatments effectively prevent suicide. We, the parents, are the first line of defense. And the best we can do is to arm ourselves with a little bit of knowledge (Take 5 to Save Lives), and keep our eyes open—even when the headlines make us want to close them tight.

It's also important to remember that, as parents, our responsibilities don't end with caring for our own kids. It's a rare child who will make it through middle and high school without coming into contact with a friend or acquaintance who is struggling with anxiety, depression, bullying, or self-harm. Statistics tell us these things are incredibly common. So learning about the signs and symptoms and keeping your eyes open is important. When your child comes home and confides that he's worried about a friend, you'll be better equipped to take action that might save a life.

Resources

Here are some good resources for exploring the topic further:

  • 3-minute podcast on the warning signs for childhood suicide

  • ReachOut.com Want to hear from someone who personally went through a tough time and got past it? ReachOut fact sheets are written by young people for young people and edited by a mental health professional.

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Suicide Prevention