The mental health crisis among our children has reached epidemic proportions, especially among teenagers. They’re dying more frequently and feeling more depressed, anxious, lonely and hopeless than ever before.
Although prolonged isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic definitely made the problem worse, it predates the past three years.
A new review in the Journal of the American Medical Association found marked increases in pediatric mortality in 2020 and 2021, rising 11% and 8% in those years, mostly among teenagers and largely among males.
It wasn’t COVID-19 infections driving the increase in mortality. Instead, it was suicide, homicide and drug-related deaths. These were “deaths of despair,” where children feel so hopeless that they turn to drugs or suicide.
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Notice we don’t say “drug overdoses.” That term doesn’t begin to describe our problem accurately. Too many children are using social media platforms to buy counterfeit pills, a high percentage of which are laced with lethal doses of fentanyl. That’s not an accidental overdose. That’s poisoning.
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CDC finds teen girls are more likely to feel sad and hopeless
Despair can turn debilitating well before it becomes deadly. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey revealed a marked increase in the share of teenage girls who felt sad or hopeless, surging from 36% in 2011 to 57% in 2021. For boys, the share was 21% in 2011 and 29% in 2021.
Nearly a third of teenage girls have “seriously considered attempting suicide,” an increase of nearly 60% since 2011.
Adults can and must help. Parents, guardians, teachers, coaches and anyone else with access must recognize the symptoms and guide those suffering to the right kind of evidenced-based help. These children need acknowledgement, support and the tools to cope with a tough, sometimes isolating and intimidating world.
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An important note: We shouldn’t try to shield them from the problems of the world, because those problems aren’t going away. Nor will false reassurance do them any good. We need to strengthen their character so they have realistic confidence in their ability to cope with personal and societal challenges.
The bottom line is those of us in charge of preparing them for “the next level” of life have failed to do our jobs. Maybe it was too easy for us to allow them to be “electronically babysat” by the devices we bought them to notice they were not becoming socialized, developing self-esteem and finding their passion. That’s on us.
Several leading researchers have posited reasons why teens are so sad now. New York University professor Jonathan Haidt blames the rise of social media and the amount of time teens spend on their phones instead of with friends. Haidt has said that “childhood has been rewired” by phone-based social media.
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When teenagers, especially teen girls, compare themselves with their peers and famous influencers for hours on end – instead of hanging out with friends and family face-to-face – it’s no wonder they become anxious or depressed.
Experts say there’s link between smartphone use and rise in depression
Some experts have suggested a direct line between the advent of smartphones and social media and increases in teenage depression and anxiety. The JAMA review points out that suicide rates among those ages 10 to 19 began to increase in 2007, the same year Apple introduced the iPhone.
And Haidt shows that anxiety began to skyrocket among teens the same year Facebook bought Instagram and increased its user base.
Derek Thompson, a writer for The Atlantic, has helpfully collated other expert hypotheses for the teen mental health crisis. He also notes that sociality among teens is down.
Psychologists Jean Twenge and Laurence Steinberg of Temple University told Thompson that social media has replaced other important activities. Teens today get less sleep, play fewer sports and spend less time with friends than teens in the 2000s.
They’re also getting fewer summer jobs. The Census Bureau reported last year that third-quarter (summer) employment levels for 14- to 18-year-olds were at their lowest levels in 28 years. As a result, teens are missing out on valuable character-building experiences.
Teenagers are also bombarded with more bad news through many more channels of access than teenagers in previous generations. They now exhibit high rates of anxiety related to policy issues like immigration, climate change and gun violence.
It’s clear from the literature that activities devoid of phones and the internet improve happiness. Twenge cites a study of eighth and 10th graders from 2013 to 2016. While texting, social media and surfing the web correlate with lower self-reported happiness, sports or exercise, volunteer work, movies, religious services and concerts correlate with higher self-reported happiness.
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Clearly, we are in a teen mental health crisis, with social media and modern technology largely to blame. Unfortunately, going cold turkey on social media and cellphones societywide isn’t a practical way to address this collective-action problem.
Teachers and schools have a role to play. In class, they can promote group activities that require discussion without any technology. Outside of class, they might encourage their charges to join a sports team, school play or a hobby club.
As adults, we should notice when our teens spend too much time on their phones and encourage them to go out and see a friend. But it must be on a collective level. Parents and teachers should get together and say enough is enough.
Communities from schools to neighborhood blocks to churches must unite and together model the value of social connection. It’s not too late, but we have no time to lose.
Phil McGraw, one of the most well-known mental health professionals in the world, is the host of one of daytime TV’s top-rated programs, “Dr. Phil.” Dr. John Whyte is chief medical officer of WebMD.