Some online content may increase a young person's risk for suicidal thoughts, a new study has found. File Photo by Potstock/Shutterstock
Sept. 20 (UPI) -- What children and teens see and do while online may increase their risk for suicide, a study published Monday by JAMA Network Open found.
Young people ages 10 to 16 who accessed or were exposed to content related to cyberbullying, illegal drugs, sex and depression were nearly twice as likely to consider suicide, the data showed.
Text and images that contain hate speech and references to suicide and self-harm also were potential triggers.
The findings could help shape programs to monitor the online activities of children and teens and identify those who are at risk, the researchers said.
"Youth suicide and self-harm are major public health problems that have been increasing over the past two decades," study co-author Dr. Steven A. Sumner told UPI in an email.
"Improved attention to what children are exposed to and posting online can potentially help parents and caregivers assist children earlier," said Sumner, a senior adviser for data science and innovation at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
The center operates under the auspices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among children and teens age 10 to 18 in the United States, and suicide rates in this age group have increased by more than 60% over the past 20 years, according to the CDC.
Over the same period, hospital emergency room visits related to self-harm injuries among young people have risen by nearly 90%, the agency says.
More recently, such injuries also appear to have become more common during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition, nearly one in five high school students nationally has "seriously considered" suicide, research suggests.
Studies also indicate that young people who discuss thoughts of suicide or self-harm online, or who engage in these exchanges with others, may be at increased risk.
For this study, Sumner and his colleagues at the CDC monitored the online activity of nearly 1,400 children and teens from across the country over a 10-month period between July 2019 and May last year.
Online activity was tracked using online safety tools created by Bark, a company that develops web control services for schools.
The online activities of 227 young people deemed at risk for suicide were compared with those of more than 1,100 not considered to be at risk previously, the researchers said.
Participants who initiated or engaged in discussions about depression were 82% more likely to consider suicide, while those who participated in exchanges about suicide or self-harm were 76% more likely to do so.
Those who used a lot of profanity in social media messages and posts -- a possible sign of anger -- were 70% more likely to consider suicide, the researchers said.
Meanwhile, young people who accessed or shared sexual content or images of cyberbullying or violence had up to a 50% higher risk for thoughts of suicide.
Those exposed to hate speech or content related to illegal drug use also had about a 20% higher risk for thoughts of suicide, the data showed.
"It's important to recognize that many parents want to help their children more, but don't know how to address the new online risks that children are facing today," Sumner said.
"We hope that this study creates new opportunities for parents to connect with their children and have important conversations about depression, bullying, substance use and other risk factors for suicide," he said.