Eight online factors linked to suicidal behavior in young people

September 28, 2021

2 minute read


Disclosures: Sumner does not report any relevant financial information. Please see the study for relevant financial information from all other authors.

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According to the results of a matched case-control study published in JAMA network open.

“Most previous studies of youth suicide and online activities have focused only on screen time,” Steven A. Sumner, MD, MSc, from the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Healio Psychiatry told. “In our study, we looked in detail at the specific online activities that preceded suicidal behavior in young people.”

Previous studies that examined possible links between online activities and youth suicide were limited by their reliance on survey data and their focus on overall screen time risk. In the current study, Sumner and colleagues aimed to investigate the correlation between various online risk factors and youth suicide-related behavior via real online activity data between July 27, 2019 and May 26, 2020. he sample included more than 2,600 US schools that participated in an online safety monitoring program through the online safety tool Bark.

The researchers matched 227 youth who had a serious suicide/self-harm threat that required notification of school administrators in a ratio of 1:5 to 1,135 controls (all participants, mean age, 13.3 years; 51, 3% of boys) on-site, amount of follow-up time and overall volume of online activity. Online risk factors assessed included eight related to cyberbullying, violence, drugs, hate speech, profanity, sexual content, depression, and low-severity self-harm, which were assessed at using text data, images and videos.

Results showed differences between the case and control populations, as well as significant associations with subsequent serious suicide/self-harm alerts when assessing total direct and indirect pathways, for all eight risk factors in line. The researchers reported adjusted ORs for the associations ranging from 1.17 (95% CI, 1.09-1.26) for drug-related content to 1.82 (95% CI, 1.73- 2.03) for content related to depression. They noted an exponential increase in the risk of serious suicide/self-harm scares when taking into account the total number of different types of online risk factors among the eight measured. The risk of subsequently having a serious suicide/self-harm alert was increased 70-fold among people with at least five of the eight risk factors present in their online activity (aOR = 78.64; 95 CI %, 34.39-179.84).

“Many parents are concerned about youth suicide and want to help their children do more, but don’t know how to deal with the new online risks children face today,” Sumner said. “It’s important to emphasize that suicide is preventable, and our study shows that careful attention to what children are exposed to and posted online can potentially help parents and caregivers help them earlier.”