The Alarming Rise in Teen Mental Illness

New research reveals a likely cause, pointing to healthier alternatives.

Posted Jan 24, 2018

 8464473) - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Source: By St. Gil, Marc, 1924-1992, Photographer (NARA record: 8464473) - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

From this week’s fatal shooting at a Kentucky high school to the alarming rise of teen suicides and depression, something is terribly wrong with our nation’s youth.

The past few years have witnessed an escalation in teen suicides and anxious, depressed, and suicidal students crowding college counseling centers (Center for Collegiate Mental Health).

Research published this week in Clinical Psychological Science points to one likely cause: excessive new media screen time (Twenge, Joiner, Rogers, & Martin, 2018).

In surveys of over five hundred thousand American adolescents, psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues found that adolescents, especially girls, who spent more time on screen activities (smartphones, Internet, and social media) were significantly more likely to have symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation than those who spent their time on non-screen activities: sports, exercise, reading books and magazines, attending religious services, interacting in person, even doing their homework.

While admitting that correlation does not mean causation, the researchers pointed out that smartphone use by teenagers has increased dramatically since 2012. They also cited studies relating heavy Facebook use to increased depressive symptoms and other studies relating abstaining from Facebook or increasing personal interactions to greater psychological well-being.

Although some may believe adolescent depression stems from heavy homework loads or economically-stressed families, these researchers found no significant evidence to support these beliefs. However, they did hypothesize that parents’ economic stress might have a delayed effect on adolescents, referring to research linking income inequality with lower overall well-being (Oishi, Kesebir, & Diener, 2011).

The current study gives us a lot to think about. Offering healthier alternatives for our teenagers and ourselves, it reminds us to actively engage our minds and bodies—to spend more time with friends and family, reading, exercising, attending religious services, and participating in other activities we find meaningful instead of mindlessly reaching for those cell phones.

References

Center for Collegiate Mental Health. (2017). 2016 Annual report, Pennsylvania State University. https://sites.psu.edu/ccmh/files/2017/01/2016-Annual-Report-FINAL_2016_01_09-1gc2hj6.pdf

Oishi, S., Kesebir, S. & Diener, E. (2011). Income inequality and happiness. Psychological Science, 22, 1095-1100.

Twenge, J. W., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G.N. (2018). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among U. S. adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6, 3-17.