Our View: Making your children put down their smartphones could save their lives

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September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Vermont is leading the fight to address suicide and mental illness throughout the state of Vermont and raise awareness of the effects of mental illness on individuals and communities.

Suicidal thoughts can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, background or temperament, but it's important to note that suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people and is often the result of mental health conditions that affect people when they are most vulnerable. Recent studies have concluded young people — those who are members of the iGen, born between 1995 and 2012 — are in even more danger of suicidal ideation due to the proliferation of electronic devices.

"[T]heirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media," writes Jean M. Twenge, for The Atlantic. While teens today are physically safer than teens have ever been, notes Twenge, "It's not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones. ... There is compelling evidence that the devices we've placed in young people's hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy. ... The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression."

And then there is cyberbullying, writes Twenge, which is especially pernicious when it comes to girls. While boys are more likely to express their bullying physically, girls who bully have historically resorted to ostracizing and demeaning their victims. Electronic devices have made this an even more effective mode of bullying. Then there are the effects of sleep-deprivation, which is directly linked to smartphone usage. "Sleep deprivation is linked to myriad issues, including compromised thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure," notes Twenge. "It also affects mood: People who don't sleep enough are prone to depression and anxiety."

While it might seem unrealistic for parents to restrict the time their children spend on their devices, "The correlations between depression and smartphone use are strong enough to suggest that more parents should be telling their kids to put down their phone. What's at stake isn't just how kids experience adolescence. The constant presence of smartphones is likely to affect them well into adulthood. Among people who suffer an episode of depression, at least half become depressed again later in life. Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them."

If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence it would be straightforward, notes Twenge. "Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something — anything — that does not involve a screen."

Parents concerned about their teens can find resources at namivt.org. They should also know they can get guidance from their doctors and their own therapists, as well as the counseling and health services professionals at their local schools.

However, if you are concerned a loved one is thinking about suicide, you or that person should utilize the Crisis Text Line (text "VT" to 741741) of the Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255). If you are hesitating right now, that hesitation can prove fatal. It's best to ask for help and not need it than to not get the help out of fear or shame and spend a lifetime regretting that failure.

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