Shock. That is the only way to describe my reaction to the deterioration of teen mental health documented by prominent local researcher Jean Twenge.
She is a professor at San Diego State University, a number cruncher who makes sense of information gleaned from myriad studies, polls and statistics gathered by government health agencies, universities and other sources.
Twenge translates what the data say regarding changing generations of Americans in her newest book, “Generations,” released by Simon and Schuster on Tuesday. Revelations about the transformation of today’s youth, Gen Z, are most unsettling, especially regarding young girls. Her research is a clarion call to action.
Every indicator of mental health and well-being that she examined has declined among U.S. teens and young adults since 2012. “The trends are stunning in their consistency, breadth and size,” Twenge writes. “There is a full-blown mental health crisis among young people, and it was building long before the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Some of her conclusions, all backed by charts and graphs of large, reputable studies, include:
• Gen Z teens (born between 1995 and 2012) are markedly more lonely than previous generations of the same ages.
• Beginning about 2012, the Gen Zers started exhibiting signs of depression and self-doubt.
• The number of teens with clinical-level depression doubled between 2011 and 2019.
• Girls fared worse than boys: By 2020, 1 of 4 teen girls experienced clinical-level depression, compared to 1 in 12 teen boys.
• The rate of 10-to-14-year-old girls going to the ER for self-harm quadrupled from 2010-2021.
• ER admissions for suicide attempts among teens doubled between 2008 and 2014.
• The actual suicide rate for teens nearly doubled between 2007 and 2019.
• During that time, suicides among 10-to-14-year-old youth tripled, nearly quadrupling among girls.
Twenge’s imagery is compelling: “Imagine if nine domestic airline flights filled with 10-to-24-year-olds crashed every single year killing everyone on board. … That is how many more additional lives have been lost to suicide among American young people since 2007.”
If that scenario were the case, airplanes would have been grounded until we figured out why they were crashing, she theorizes.
Her research clearly indicates that, despite an improving U.S. economy and lessening unemployment, something began going wrong in teens’ lives around 2012, followed soon thereafter in the lives of young adults. But what was it? “The rise in teen mental health issues was a mystery.”
Like Sherlock Holmes or a “CSI” forensics team, Twenge followed the clues. The light began dawning when she came across a Pew Research Center poll that graphed smartphone ownership beginning in 2007, with the introduction of the iPhone.
Another study showed that, by 2012, 3 out of 4 teens were using social media every day. The most likely explanation for the rise in teen depression, self-harm and suicide was the rise in these new technologies. “No other plausible culprit has emerged,” Twenge’s research concluded.
This doesn’t negate root causes of depression – genetic predisposition, poverty, trauma, bullying, discrimination, etc. But she found the sharp increase in depression correlates with the relatively quick adoption of advanced communications technology.
The pattern of declining mental health by age group fits the growth in digital media use. Adolescents were the first to adopt and become absorbed by these technologies, young adults were second and prime-age adults were third. Mental health issues increased progressively with each age group beginning in 2015.
This isn’t a U.S. phenomenon. Twenge studied data regarding teen self-harm, anxiety and depression in other English-speaking countries and found striking increases in mental health challenges over a short period of time.
A World Health Organization health behavior survey of 600,000 13-to-15-year-old youth in 50 (mostly European) countries since 2002 showed a sharp jump of teens in distress between 2010 and 2018, especially girls.
Day-to-day life also changed for teens who were increasingly using Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok apps. The average teen spent more than 8.5 hours a day on various screen media in 2021 and a lot less time hanging out with friends, research showed. They also were sleeping less. By 2021, half of the teens surveyed were reported to be significantly sleep deprived, often using their phones late at night.
A large United Kingdom study of 14- and 15-year-old teens discovered that those who used social media slept poorly, were more likely to be bullied online and were prone to have poor body image issues. What’s more, girls who heavily used social media were three times more likely to be depressed than non-users.
There are other findings: increased insecurity, withdrawal and loneliness, physical inactivity, failure to eat breakfast, obesity (one-third of young adults were considered clinically obese in 2019) and pessimism about the state of the world and their futures.
Twenge called a newly released U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report the last straw for researchers such as her who have been sounding the alarm about deteriorating teen mental health for years. The study reported that 1 out of 3 teen girls seriously considered suicide in 2021 for various reasons.
She calls this CDC data “one more concerning sign of the mental health crisis for teens that began more than a decade ago.” But these trends are international. “In one study, we found that teen loneliness increased after 2012 in 36 countries around the world.”
There has been some progress. Utah just passed a law that will give parents more say in their kids’ access to social media. The research of Twenge and two other prominent academicians on the harmful effects of social media was influential in introduction of the legislation, reports the Deseret News.
Twenge has no magic solution for kids in today’s internet-connected world. She advises parents who let their kids use smartphones to activate parental controls and put restrictions on use and the downloading of apps.
As a mother of three growing children, she faces the same phone battles other parents do. When her daughter was 13, Twenge gave her a Gabb phone, which allows texting and calling, but no social media, internet access or games.
“My number one rule is: No phones in the bedroom overnight to protect sleep time from the interference of technology. That rule is for everyone, not just teens.”