Why Are So Many More Teens Depressed?

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., is a professor of Psychology at San Diego State University who has been studying trends in attitudes and behaviors of teens and young adults for quite a long time now.  She has surveyed more than 1.4 million teens since the 1970s.  She found that there was an increase in teens reporting they were experiencing symptoms of depression.  These symptoms continued to rise over the next couple of years, which makes today`s teens more depressed than those a couple of years before, as Twenge notes in her book iGen.

Many people have wondered how Twenge concluded that mental issues were on the rise and why.  iGen contains all of the analyses and graphs which answer the critiques based on an incomplete data.

As she investigated further, she found that the increase in depressive symptoms was only a small portion of the story.  Happiness started to decline, loneliness significantly increased, and more college students said they felt overwhelmed and depressed. What`s more, 50% more teens in 2015 vs 2011 showed clinically diagnosable depression in the study.  Ultimately, the teen suicide rate tripled among girls aged 12-14. As is of all this weren’t enough, no one seemed to know the reason!

Since the American economy significantly improved after 2011, economic causes were unlikely.  There was no political or cataclysmic event, either.  It wasn’t academic pressure, as teens in the 2010 do fewer hours of homework compared to their peers a few years before. Shifting family structure, income inequality, and similar factors also seemed unlikely. So, what was it?

In another study, Twenge found that teens were spending less time with their peers and friends face-to face.  This is the time when smartphones became all the rage and many teens started spending most of their time looking at their phone. Furthermore, this is also the time when social media became crucial part of teens` daily life, affecting their lives in tremendous way.

So, the timing fits! Right when smartphones and social media became common, the face-to-face communication declined.  Therefore, it`s no wonder that experts link smartphone (ab)use with lower well-being among teens. The analyses done by Twenge showed that teens who spent more time on their smartphones were less happy, more depressed, and at higher risk for suicide.

Many people wondered why she didn’t include studies that reveal the positive effects of social media.  The reason is very simple though.  First, this was a book excerpt, so she focused on the analyses done for the book (of the nationally representative MtF and CDC data on thousands of teens, which show link between more time on social media and lower well-being). Secondly, a recent meta-analysis based on 67 studies also found a link between more time on social media and lower well-being. With this being said, it seems more than clear that the evidence point toward more social media use and increased depressive symptoms; thus; the idea that Twenge was selective with the evidence is unfounded.