About ten years ago, I speculated that teenagers devoured dystopian novels, like The Hunger Games, because they found post-apocalyptic hellscapes preferable to their over-scheduled, high pressured, isolated, sanitized worlds. Teenagers, I believed, would rather run through the woods with a sword than fill out another college application. While I never finished that essay, I continued being worried about teenagers and mental health.
In an article that I published for the Atlantic in 2016, I touched on the stress that my son felt around grades. Later, Edutopia asked me to do an article that focused on mental health and boys, and I got an earful from psychologists and academics about the unprecedented levels of alienation in America’s youth. While the problems definitely started before the pandemic, school shutdowns didn’t help things, for sure.
Spurred on by record high rates of depression among teenage girls, the punditry has been writing about their theories for the causes of teenage depression. While it makes for a catchier opinion article to focus on one pet cause to explain a big problem, there’s probably a multitude of causes behind teenage sadness— decreased family time, social media, video games, economic shifts, and online access to disturbing material. To meet those challenges, we need to make big changes within our families and in the wider world.
15 thoughts on “Teenage Wasteland: Social media, Cell Phones, Isolation Are Making Kids Depressed. What should we do to fix things?”
“While it makes for a catchier opinion article to focus on one pet cause to explain a big problem, there’s probably a multitude of causes behind teenage sadness— . . . ”
I’ve always respected when you resist the call to pet causes in favor of more nuanced opinion. And, I really appreciate that you talked to your adult child rather than just opining what having an iPhone in 5th grade meant to him.
Our younger got his iPhone shortly after his 11th birthday. I think older was a bit older. We had discussions with both of them, long ones, and they read and signed contracts about phone use. In earlier days, with older, I would, on occasion, flip through her text messages/instagram (with permission though not without complaint).
They were fairly compliant, I think, but stumbling on something that it would be better not to see and, potentially, being drawn in is impossible to avoid.
Older shares this article, from New York Magazine when people blame iPhones & tech: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/10/why-are-kids-so-sad.html
She thinks the online relationships were important for children who needed bigger worlds than they were in, be it rich kid school or small rural outpost.
“She thinks the online relationships were important for children who needed bigger worlds than they were in, be it rich kid school or small rural outpost.”
I agree with Older. I suspect that social media has significant negative effects on tweens/teens’ proximity social groups, i.e., the people they see in their everyday lives. Imagine never being able to escape the similarly hormonal people who you have to deal with every day.
But it has positive effects for teens/tweens to recognize and explore other interests. I know that as a kid I was desperate to explore interests that the people around me didn’t care about. I’d spend hours in the public library researching anything that caught my fancy, and when I got into soap operas, I started collecting pen pals, people who would talk about soaps with me.
I found this blog when I had small children and needed a mom network other than the buffed moms whose work was their child and home (I sent my spouse and nanny to a gymboree class—they both reported back on what felt to them like a class full of stepford moms).
Finding other academic and employed moms who were realizing that balance wasn’t going to happen seamless was very important.
(got to know some of those “stepford” moms eventually and they were not stereotypes but I wasn’t in a place to understand then)
Bj, the New York Magazine article is…meh. First off, I find it hard to trust a writer who describes Jean Twenge as a “marketing consultant.”
Really? Because she’s Dr. Jean Twenge, full professor of psychology at San Diego State. More than a hundred publications. http://www.jeantwenge.com/research/ I’m pretty sure he knew that.
I remember standing in a bookstore as a preteen or young teenager and reading something in a book that I found really upsetting. I don’t even remember what – probably child abuse or sexual violence – but it stuck with me, to the point where I remember that sickened feeling probably 40 years later. Kids are exposed to all sorts of things no matter what, because they talk to other kids who either have direct experience (of cruelty, of poverty, of abuse) or who just make stuff up for attention or to look sophisticated. And mean kids have always existed, making life miserable for other kids.
It may be that the horrifying videos on phones are worse than any of these other things, but it was never easy for kids to come to terms with the brutalities of life.
Here’s a chart showing US female suicide, self-poisoning, and depression all skyrocketing starting between 2012 and 2013.
This is, coincidentally, right around the time that smartphones become extremely prevalent.
Paul Graham comments:
“This graph is from
‘s article on the subject. I agree that “It’s the phones” should be our default hypothesis. Though it’s not the phones per se; it’s the apps.”
“David Petersen (
) posted this graph of the percentage of teens who meet their friends in person almost every day. If you crop and flip it, it’s much the same shape as the graph of mental health problems.”
Matt Yglesias weighs in (haven’t read the long piece):
“It’s not just young women whose depression rates have surged — it’s specifically young liberals, with liberal teen boys actually faring worse than conservative teen girls.”
It is, I think, a fair point that contemporary US progressivism (particularly the youth/extremely-online segment) is very negative, focused on hunting witches rather than building something in the real world, and doesn’t have a positive vision of life to offer young people. Especially online, the most dysfunctional people are the most influential.
(There is a right-wing equivalent, and those people are toxic and unhappy, too.)
“It is, I think, a fair point that contemporary US progressivism (particularly the youth/extremely-online segment) is very negative, focused on hunting witches rather than building something in the real world, and doesn’t have a positive vision of life to offer young people. Especially online, the most dysfunctional people are the most influential.”
I … take issue with this.
I think a lot of online political behavior tends to be negative. Why? Because online is where people can express negative thoughts easily and constantly. But it can also provide moment of connection.
Communities are formed out of joy. And I think one of the proofs of this, and the social change that has resulted, has come from online fandom spaces, which have been where queer joy and community and acceptance have thrived. And I think that is a reason why a lot of younger people have developed greater acceptance of queerness. There’s a backlash against LGBTQ people right now because of that social community that developed into a real-world political community that expects equal rights.
Black Twitter has done similar work, and Romancelandia has been playing a significant role in fundraising for progressive candidates, in part because of our matron saint of romance-writing political activists, Stacey Abrams. Meanwhile, union activity on college campuses is seeing a lot of student support. When I teach my class on the working life, I always make sure to tell students about how much money their adjunct professors make. They are shocked.
I have no idea what online things are like for youth, but there’s now a political component to the usual bullying of the weaker boys by the stronger and being bullied is worse for depression than being a bully, at least for teens.
What does the political bullying look like? It isn’t something my kiddo has reported, but I do think the other issue in thoughtful social media usage is that the standards and fashions and issues change rapidly.
I don’t think it’s explicitly political, but you can’t really get very far calling yourself liberal even as a teen if you are denouncing or attacking other boys for real or perceived homosexuality.
People who think that everything is terrible and hopeless are (surprise!) very poorly positioned to make the world a better place.
What is that a zscore compared to? Here’s a stat from the CDC that shows suicide rates:
“While it makes for a catchier opinion article to focus on one pet cause to explain a big problem . . . .” (i.e “phones” should be our default hypothesis”) human behavior is almost always more nuanced.
“My own research suggests that the best way we can do that is by embracing our role as digital mentors: actively encouraging our kids to use technology, but offering ongoing support and guidance in how to use it appropriately. I shared some highlights from that research in The Atlantic, actually (#irony), showing how kids who’ve been actively mentored by their parents actually have healthier relationships to technology than kids who’ve been set free in the wilds of the Internet, or conversely, had their online access tightly limited.” https://daily.jstor.org/yes-smartphones-are-destroying-a-generation-but-not-of-kids/
. . .
“But that kind of nuanced approach is hard to embrace if you’re reeling from the unceasing warnings about how smartphones are “destroying” your kids. That’s why it’s time for us to stop paying attention to alarmist attacks on kids’ screen time—and instead pay attention to our kids.”
True hopelessness might indeed be a barrier to change and making the world better but attention to the terribleness isn’t.
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