Social media use of adolescents who died by suicide: lessons from a psychological autopsy study

Elias Balt*, Saskia Mérelle, Jo Robinson, Arne Popma, Daan Creemers, Isa van den Brand, Diana van Bergen, Sanne Rasing, Wico Mulder, Renske Gilissen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: while there are many benefits for young people to use social media, adverse effects such as cyberbullying, online challenges, social comparison and imitation may provoke and aggravate suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The influence of social media on mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviours has been amply studied, but there is little empirical evidence for its potential role in adolescent suicides. The current study aimed to inform digital suicide prevention strategies by examining the meaning of social media in the lives of young suicide victims and elucidating the harmful and supportive effects of social media use on their wellbeing and distress. Methods: data were analyzed from a psychological autopsy study of 35 adolescents who died by suicide in the Netherlands (43% of all adolescents who died by suicide in that year). These were 18 girls and 17 boys. All were under the age of twenty years, with an average of seventeen years. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis was performed of 55 semi structured interviews with peers and parents of the decedents. Results: young people benefitted from peer support and recovery stories. However, various themes were discussed relating to the harmful effects of social media, including dependency, triggers and imitation, challenges, cybervictimization and psychological entrapment. The themes of dependency and triggers and imitation were more salient in young females. A group of girls cultivated an online identity around their suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Next-of-kin, particularly parents, faced various challenges to talk to the adolescents about social media use, including technological illiteracy, online anonymity, and the youths’ closedness. Conclusions: based on the findings, we recommend education to stimulate the digital literacy of parents, health workers and educators, supporting conscientious social media use in young people, and extending the prevention of cyberbullying. We encourage future research to examine how virtual social networks may sustain suicidal thoughts and behaviour, and to further investigate the effectiveness of digital interventions, like moderated peer support and the use of positive role models.
Original languageEnglish
Article number48
JournalChild and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2023

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