September 29, 2022
Teen Crisis Causes, Warning Signs, Tips to Help

Teen Crisis Causes, Warning Signs, Tips to Help

Jonathan Haidt is one of several researchers who draw a direct line between social media and the increase in mood disorders in children and teens. “When you compare rates in 2009 — before most teens were daily users of social media — to 2019 — the last full year before COVID-19 made things even worse — the increases are generally between 50 percent and 150 percent,” Haidt wrote in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May. Self-harm among young teen girls, in particular, is up about 180 percent, says Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University. Boys and girls both have higher rates of anxiety and depression, but girls have suffered the greater impact.

When kids have access to social media one to two hours per day, there is often no correlated increase in poor mental health, Haidt wrote. But as daily usage increases to three or more hours, increases in mental illness “often become quite sharp.”

“I do not believe that social media is the only cause of the crisis,” he wrote to the committee. “But there is no alternative hypothesis that can explain the suddenness, enormity and international similarity” of the spike in mental health disorders.

Clinicians treating kids on the ground report the same thing: young people exhibiting exploding rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm, right about the time that digital media became a daily part of their lives.

“What I’ve seen clinically matches with what the literature is saying — that somewhere around 2010 is that inflection point, where you really start to see diagnoses going up, you start to see hospitalizations going up,” says Megan Moreno, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and principal investigator with the university’s social media and adolescent health research team. “The question is, ‘What caused the numbers to go from that to this?’

“And you want me to answer: [smartphones]. That’s the easy answer that people reach for,” Moreno continues. “It’s the question of the day: Have we essentially given every kid a self-destruct-o device?”

The answer is, of course, more complicated.

“Between about 2008 and 2011, there was an incredibly rapid uptake of electronic medical records for huge institutions across the country,” Moreno says. And electronic medical records prompt physicians to screen routinely for mental health issues. “We started asking everybody—not just kids who looked sad or who had purple hair.” As a result, teens who seemed to be functioning quite well started testing positive for anxiety and depression.

But while that might have played a role in the timing of the spike, the reality of the crisis is undeniable.

“There are so many things that are weakening support systems for kids,” says Amanda Lenhart, a researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York City who studies how adolescents and families use technology. “If you just focused on cellphones, you would be missing part of the story.” Teacher burnout and overcrowding in schools mean less support for kids who are vulnerable. Meanwhile, the country feels just a little less safe. Fistfights on airplanes. Political rallies that turn violent. Volatile confrontations over race. America is filled with angry adults. And angry adults lead to skittish children.

Another factor that weighs on children’s minds: mass shootings.

The active-shooter drills that today’s students practice resemble the “duck and cover” procedures of boomer childhoods. But there’s a difference: While prepping for nuclear war was scary, “how many times was the mainland United States attacked by a bomb?” asks Nusheen Ameenuddin, M.D., chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media. “It’s a different story for kids. There are shootings at theaters, shootings at events, shootings at school; there really isn’t a place where they feel safe.”

Social media amplifies all of these anxieties. Moreno, for one, sees a near normalization of suicide on social media that may be playing a role in what’s happening in real life. “There’s a contagion effect. If someone in their very remote social network attempted suicide, that information is going to feed back and show that youth that there’s tons of people out there doing this,” she says. “It presents suicide as an option, and that’s the unique power that social media has that other types of media have not had before.”

Yet, at the same time, social media also offers young people an outlet for their emotional challenges. In a 2020 study, 43 percent of people ages 14 to 22 said that when they felt depressed, stressed or anxious, using social media usually made them feel better, compared with just 17 percent who said it made them feel worse. Young people with moderate to severe depressive symptoms are nearly twice as likely as those without depression to say they use social media “almost constantly.”

“Much to many people’s surprise, social media became a very OK place to talk about mental health,” Moreno says. “I think it’s had a huge impact on stigma. It’s more acceptable. It’s OK to ask for help.”

But asking for help and getting it are two different things.