“Adolescence is nature’s own psychosis,” a psychiatrist who specializes in treating that population told me when my own teenager was driving me crazy with the particular tactic guaranteed to push most parents’ buttons—withdrawal. “Most kids grow out of it. Others never do," he added.
That was 40 years ago, before the rise in mood disorder and suicide-related outcomes that began with those born in the early 1980s (the Millennials) and continued to increase through the cohort born in the late 90s, or "iGen," as it’s been labeled by Jean Twenge.
Twenge is a research psychologist who examines young adulthood and has published widely on attitudes and behaviors in this life stage. She and her colleagues analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use, citing alarming statistics—a 71 percent increase in serious psychological distress in young adults from 2008 to 2017, and a 52 percent increase among adolescents aged 12 to 17. Mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes show no such trends among adults 26 and over, which suggests a generational shift in these disorders and outcomes rather than an overall increase across all ages.*
Twenge and her colleagues suggest two cultural trends that contribute to this alarming progression—the rise in electronic communication and digital media and a decline in sleep duration. Ruling out cyclical economic factors and changes in drug and alcohol use, they point to the increased ownership of smartphones and a concomitant (though not necessarily causal) increase in digital media time among this cohort, a trend that has a different impact on individuals depending on their developmental stage. The time which younger teenagers spend face to face with their friends declined between 2008 and 2017, as their time online increased, along with their exposure to suicide-related content.
The second driver of the increase in mood disorders and depression is attributed by Twenge and others to the decline in sleep duration, as measured in other studies. “Compromised sleep is a major risk factor in the onset, recurrence, chronicity, and severity of mood disorders,” and it will come as no surprise to parents of teens and young adults that their kids are on their mobile devices almost around the clock. Whether or not this is why adolescents need more sleep to perform intellectual tasks, many school districts around the country have adjusted starting times for middle and high schoolers, although the data isn’t in yet on whether this tactic has had any effect on lowering mood disorders or even improving school performance in students.
Trying to curtail or limit smartphone use isn’t an easy task—even schools don’t seem to be successful at banishing them from the classroom, and many have given up trying. For many parents, it seems more important to be able to reach their kids (by text if not voice, which is usually resorted to only in emergencies), and for their kids to be able to reach them, 24-7 than setting and trying to enforce rules governing the use of their smartphones. Others have tried turning off their home internet, both wifi and broadband, at a certain time, although it’s not hard to find a way around it.
For Android users, limiting internet use on kids’ phones is easy: There are ways to limit screen time and purchases, control access to the content your child views, monitor your child's activities, and preserve family privacy. The real challenge, it seems, is figuring out how to locate and activate those features. Google has a free app that parents can download for help managing Android devices, and Apple rolled out a new set of parental controls with its recent iOS 12 updates, developed after shareholders expressed concern about the impact of smartphones on children.
Monitoring our kids’ electronic use and sleeping habits may help improve our mental health and maybe even theirs. But staying in close enough touch to monitor their moods—their inner lives—is harder to do. Observing their affect and behavior, offering empathy and comfort without either over- or under-reacting to what may be and often is a temporary change in mood or hormonal balance, and knowing when to ask for help—not necessarily a professional referral, but even just checking in with your kids’ teachers, coaches, or friends’ parents—is a good place to start. After all, they’ll probably grow out of it.
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Twenge, Cooper, Binau, Joiner & Duffy, 2019. "Age, Period and Cohort Trends in Mood Disorders and Suicide-Related Outcomes," Journal of Abnormal Psychology, vol. 128, No.3