Those of us old enough to remember the Who, likely remember the song titled “the kids are alright,” an anthem to the spirit of young people. Sadly, this is no longer true. Data on child, adolescent, and young adult mental health suggests that these age groups are struggling with increased rates of psychological problems and psychiatric disorders, particularly anxiety and depression (1). In this blog we will consider a number of factors that may be contributing to this epidemic. In subsequent blogs we will discuss strategies to address the stresses and challenges facing today’s youth.
The pandemic has been considered the primary culprit in rising rates of mental illness (1) among young people (this term is used to refer to children, adolescents and college age people). In particular the social isolation that resulted from the pandemic (and specifically from school closures) has been considered a major culprit. A related concern has been the recent finding that math and reading scores have dropped for 4th and 8th graders across the United States. Cutting young people from their peers and disrupting their education has obviously been a major stressor for our society. Parents of all age groups report that their children struggled with many aspects of the pandemic. However, much of the data we have on rising rates of mental health problems in young people shows that these trends predate the Pandemic.
A variety of other factors that have been suggested to be culprits in these rising rates of psychiatric disorders among young people. Probably first among these is the pernicious impact of social media. For example, studies by the psychologist Jean Twenge (2) have identified the negative effects of social media on adolescents and young adults. Twenge’s studies show higher rates of anxiety, depression and even eating disorders, associated with higher rates of social media use. Facebook insiders have also identified that Facebook’s own data was having a negative impact on the mental health of teens (3). Instagram was identified as the main culprit. While some have challenged these findings there appears to be a growing consensus that social media, particularly at higher levels of use, is having a negative impact on young people.
The early onset of puberty has also been suggested to contribute to the increased rates of mental health problems in teens. In a thought provoking podcast from August of this year, the Daily show, features a discussion of the teen mental health crisis with reporter Matt Richel (4). Richel suggested that the earlier onset of puberty intersects with the increased exposure to a wide range of anxiety provoking materials (via the internet and social media, particularly sexual materials) and results in younger teens being overwhelmed. Specifically, Richel suggests that while physically maturing and experiencing an earlier onset of adolescent concerns younger teens are not yet ready to cope with or process many of the things they are exposed to on the internet. Richel also asserts that the lack of services for youth compounds this problem. In addition, Richel notes that there has been a shift in the type of problems that teens present with: more anxiety and depression, and less acting out. This finding has been noted elsewhere and has been attributed to the rise of social media, streaming services, video gaming, changes in how children play (the rise of supervised activity and the decline of free play), changes in family structure, and other social changes.
In their provocatively titled book, The Coddling of the American Mind, the authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that there is a disturbing trend in this country involving the overprotection of children. While much of their book focuses on college students the authors argue that this problem touches children of all ages and impacts their development. While the authors can be accused of highlighting extreme examples of young people wanting “spaces” and protection from exposure to ideas that challenge their beliefs, the general thesis of the book is that there are troubling trends in our society that involve a striving to protect young people from negative emotions (which includes protecting them from all negative experiences, e.g., failing) as well as an overfocus on the validity of emotions over reasoning. The authors express particular concern regarding what they label as the “defining down” of trauma, to include unpleasant emotional experiences. A wide range of social critics have raised similar concerns with critiques that highlight “participation trophies’ which prevent children from learning from losing and failing, to the famed “bulldozer” and “helicopter” parents. The conclusion that the book’s authors, and other social critics, draw is that this coddling makes young people less resilient and more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions.
One additional factor that is worth noting is the fact that we are living in what have been referred to as anxious times. From the political upheavals and tensions that have roiled this country to increased concerns about climate change and the impending climate disaster young people (as well as the not so young) are bombarded with a broad array of social problems which can often seem overwhelming.
In sum, it is likely that all of the factors noted above, plus others, are contributing to youth mental health crises. The relative contribution of each of these variables or influences is far from clear, and may likely vary from person to person. While some of these factors are likely here to stay, e.g., early onset of puberty, the omnipresence of smartphones and social media, and the fact that we live in anxious times, we are not suggesting that the situation is hopeless. In upcoming blogs we will examine ways to address the current youth mental health crisis.
- Multiple lines of evidence have identified increased rates of mental illness in young people. For example a study in the Pediatrics Journal of the American Medical Association highlights a significant increase in the rates of children and teens (ages 3-17) diagnosed with mental health conditions. Interestingly, this study collected data from 2020 to 2016. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2022/03/14/new-hhs-study-jama-pediatrics-shows-significant-increases-children-diagnosed-mental-health-conditions-2016-2020.html#:~:text=The%20study%2C%20conducted%20by%20the,with%20depression%20by%2027%20percent.
- Twenge summarizes and explains her work in this article in Atlantic magazine: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/
- This Wall Street journal article from 2021 provides a good summary of the negative impacts of Instagram on teen mental health
- The Daily Show, a New York Times podcast, from August 30th, 2022.
- The Coddling of the American Mind