The Truth About Teens, Social Media and the Mental Health Crisis

Back in 2017, psychologist Jean Twenge set off a firestorm in the field of psychology. Twenge warned of a mental health crisis on the horizon. Rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness were rising. And she had a hypothesis for the cause: smartphones and all the social media that comes along with them.

Now, six years later, Twenge has a new book out called Generations, with much more data backing her hypothesis. At the same time, several high-quality studies have begun to answer critical questions, such as does social media cause teens to become depressed and is it a key contributor to a rise in depression?

A seismic change in how teens spend their time

In Generations, Twenge analyzes mental health trends for five age groups, from the Silent Generation, who were born between 1925 and 1945, to Gen Z, who were born between 1995 and 2012. She shows definitively that “the way teens spend their time outside of school fundamentally changed in 2012,” as Twenge writes in the book.

Take for instance, hanging out with friends, in person. Since 1976, the number of times per week teens go out with friends — and without their parents — held basically steady for nearly 30 years. In 2004, it slid a bit. Then in 2010, it nosedived.

At the same time, around 2012, time on social media began to soar. By 2022, 95% of teens said they use some social media, and about a third say they use it constantly, a poll from Pew Research Center.

“Now, in the most recent data, 22% of 10th grade girls spend seven or more hours a day on social media,” Twenge says, which means many teenage girls are doing little else than sleeping, going to school and engaging with social media.

Not surprisingly, all this screen time has cut into many kids’ sleep time. Between 2010 and 2021, the percentage of 10th and 12th graders who slept seven or fewer hours each night rose from a third to nearly one-half.

“Every indicator of mental health and psychological well-being has become more negative among teens and young adults since 2012,” Twenge writes in Generations. “The trends are stunning in their consistency, breadth and size.”

Across the board, since 2010, anxiety, depression and loneliness have all increased. “And it’s not just symptoms that rose, but also behaviors,” she says, “including emergency room visits for self-harm, for suicide attempts and completed suicides.” The data goes up through 2019, so it doesn’t include changes due to COVID-19.

Murky picture becomes clearer on causes of teen depression

But the timing doesn’t tell you whether social media actually causes depression in teens.

In the past decade, scientists have published a whole slew of studies trying to answer this question, and those studies sparked intense debate among scientists and in the media. But, Said says, what many people don’t realize is scientists weren’t using — or didn’t even have — the proper tools to answer the question. “This is a very hard problem to study,” he says. “The data they were analyzing couldn’t really solve the problem.”

Hundreds of thousands of more college students depressed

Over the past few years, several high-quality studies have come that can directly test whether social media causes depression. Instead of being murky and mixed, they support each other and show clear effects of social media. “The body of literature seems to suggest that indeed, social media has negative effects on mental health, especially on young adults’ mental health,” says  Alexey Makarin, economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who led what many scientists say is the best study on the topic to date.

Excerpted from “The Truth About Teens, Social Media and the Mental Health Crisis” from NPR. Read the full article online for more details on the most recent findings about the impact of social media on teens. Listen to the article below:

Source: NPR | The Truth About Teens, Social Media and the Mental Health Crisis, | © 2023 npr

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