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Among children aged 10 to 14, death by suicide is now more common than death from traffic accidents.

On November 3, 2016, the New York Times reported that it is now just as likely for middle school students to die from suicide as from traffic accidents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the suicide rate for children ages 10 to 14 had caught up to their death rate for traffic accidents. Death is a rare event for adolescents. But the unprecedented rise in suicide among children at such young ages, however small the number, was troubling. In all, 425 children ages 10 to 14 killed themselves in 2014. In contrast, 384 children of that age died in car accidents. In 1999, the death rate for children ages 10 to 14 from traffic accidents — about 4.5 deaths per 100,000 — was quadruple the rate for suicide. But by 2014, the death rate from car crashes had been cut in half. The suicide rate, however, had nearly doubled, with most of the increase happening since 2007. In 2014, the suicide death rate was 2.1 per 100,000.

Far more boys than girls killed themselves in 2014 — 275 boys to 150 girls — in line with adults in the general population. American men kill themselves at far higher rates than women. But the increase for girls was much sharper — a tripling, compared with a rise of about a third for boys.

The reasons for suicide are complex. No single factor causes it. But social media tends to exacerbate the challenges and insecurities girls are already wrestling with at that age, possibly heightening risks, adolescent health experts said. Social media is, in part, responsible.

Statistically, girls dominate visual platforms like Facebook and Instagram where they receive instant validation from their peers, she said. It also is a way to quantify popularity, and take things that used to be private and intangible and make them public and tangible. It used to be that you didn’t know how many friends someone had, or what they were doing after school

Social media assigns numbers to those things. For the most vulnerable girls, that can be very destabilizing.”

The public aspect can be particularly painful. Social media exponentially amplifies humiliation, and an unformed, vulnerable child who is humiliated is at much higher risk of suicide than she would otherwise have been.

Another profound change has been that girls are going through puberty at earlier ages. Today girls get their first period at age 12 and a half on average. That means girls are becoming young women at an age when they are less equipped to deal with the issues that raises — sex and gender identity, peer relationships, more independence from family. Girls experience depression at twice the rate of boys in adolescence. Depression is being diagnosed more often these days, and adolescents are taking more medication than ever before, but Dr. Levy-Warren cautioned that it was not clear whether that is because more people are actually depressed, or because it is simply being identified more than before.

 

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