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Identifying mechanisms that explain the relationship between digital technology use and psychosocial risk factors for suicide

Sewall, Craig (2021) Identifying mechanisms that explain the relationship between digital technology use and psychosocial risk factors for suicide. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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The increasing integration of digital technology into our daily lives over the past 20 years, coupled with increasing rates of psychological distress during roughly the same period, especially among young people, have led many to question how these technologies may impact psychosocial risk factors for suicide, such as depression, anxiety, social isolation, and suicidal ideation (SI). Yet, the plethora of research in this field has yielded inconsistent findings due to three prominent limitations: unreliable measurement, lack of longitudinal studies, and lack of research explicating potential mechanisms. Addressing these limitations, the current study aimed to examine (1) the direct, temporal relationships between objectively-measured digital technology use (DTU) and psychosocial risk factors for suicide and (2) the potential mechanisms that mediate or moderate these relationships.

A four-wave panel study of N=384 young adult participants was completed from August-November 2020. Mental health variables included depression, anxiety, social isolation, and SI. Behavioral mechanisms variables included sleep disturbance and number of past-week steps taken. Psychosocial mechanisms included online social comparison as well as five items measuring different aspects of social media use. Objective DTU data were obtained by having participants upload screenshots of their “Screen Time” application which tracks their frequency/duration of iPhone use and duration of social media use. Random intercept cross-lagged panel models (RI-CLPM) and multilevel structural equation models (MSEM) were estimated to investigate aims (1) and (2).

Results of the statistical analyses revealed no significant within- or between-person associations, either temporally or concurrently, between objectively tracked digital technology use and any of the psychosocial risk factors for suicide. Sleep disturbance and online social comparison were significantly associated with within-person increases in depression, anxiety, and social isolation.

Instead of focusing on simple metrics of frequency or duration of digital technology use, researchers and social work practitioners should take a more person-centered approach whereby details related to who, what, when, why, and how youth use digital technology are carefully assessed to identify whether and how certain specific aspects of DTU are associated with benefits or harms.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Sewall, Craigcjs227@pitt.eduCJS2270000-0003-1102-5695
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairRosen,
Committee MemberGoldstein,
Committee MemberNewhill,
Committee MemberEack,
Date: 25 May 2021
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 12 April 2021
Approval Date: 25 May 2021
Submission Date: 10 May 2021
Access Restriction: 2 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 2 years.
Number of Pages: 123
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: School of Social Work > Social Work
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: social media; screen time; digital technology; suicide; young adults; depression; anxiety; social isolation;
Date Deposited: 25 May 2021 22:22
Last Modified: 25 May 2023 05:15


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