This is the third part of a three-part series examining the connection between our entertainment/media culture and mental health, the latter of which is a growing problem for America’s youth. Last week, Paul Asay unpacked the ways that movies and TV depict characters struggling with mental illness. This week, we focus on what researchers are discovering about the potential correlations between too much social media and issues such as anxiety, depression, suicide and self-harm.
Journalists love the word crisis. That word begs us to stop what we’re doing and pay attention. And in a world of 24/7 news on every information platform we can imagine, we hardly go a day without seeing that headline screaming at us somewhere. So much so that, well, we can grow kind of numb to it.
But not all crises are created equal. Sometimes, a dangerous trend is genuinely worthy of that dramatic descriptor. And that’s definitely the case with teen mental health these days.
Trends come and go, usually with gradual shifts up or down. This is true when it comes to virtually any behavior you care to measure, be it smoking or drinking, teen sexual activity and pregnancy, violent crime or car accidents. You name it, someone has studied it and plotted the trend line.
But since 2011, researchers have been concerned with one particularly ominous set of trend lines related to teen mental health. Multiple studies indicate that rates of teen depression and anxiety, as well as self-harm and suicide, are skyrocketing.
San Diego State University’s Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist who’s specialized in generational differences, has been at the vanguard of research on this subject. In September 2017, she wrote in The Atlantic:
Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.
Since then, mental health has continued to deteriorate by almost every measure among tweens, teens and young adults. Additional research published by Twenge in March 2019 further illustrates the observations she’s been making for several years now. Drawing upon 15 years of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which was compiled from 2005 to 2017, Twenge and her team noted that rates of psychological distress among some 600,000 teens and young adults in America have simply gone through the roof.
Over the last decade, incidents of major depression are up 52% among teens and 63% in young adults (ages 18 to 25). The suicide rate among 18- to 19-year-olds increased 56% from 2008 to 2017.
Twenge—and many others—began to research what could be causing such radical changes. And while causation with regard to behavioral changes is notoriously difficult to prove, scientists have increasingly speculated that the emergence of social media combined with the ubiquity of smartphones is the primary culprit. Which is why Twenge titled her 2017 Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
Near the beginning of that article (adapted from her 2017 book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us), Twenge talks about the revolutionary arrival of the iPhone as a revolutionary cultural inflection point:
The impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household …. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.
Every generation for centuries now has likely had moments when new technology and cultural changes yielded hand-wringing and doomsday predictions, dating at least as far back as the printing press. But since the rate of smartphone ownership among teens hit 50% among Americans in 2012, the behavioral and mental health changes in our culture have indeed been stark. And the smartphone—along with its handmaiden, social media—seems to be at the nexus of these changes.
Twenge notes that kids are simply not spending time together anymore. From 2000 to 2015, the percentage of teens who get together with friends daily has dropped a whopping 40%. Instead of going out, hanging out or being together, they’re holed up in their rooms—a trend that many parents concerned about dangers in the real world might see as a good thing.
But even though social media combined with smartphones promises nearly limitless connection, it’s not making kids happier. Twenge again: Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to say that they’re unhappy. In contrast, those who spend an above-average amount of time with friends are 20% less likely to report feeling unhappy.
Understanding the Connection
So what’s the connection? What’s the correlation between young people’s use of social media and smartphones with so many negative mental health outcomes? Scientists have offered several hypotheses.
Human Interaction. First of all—and perhaps most simply—we need face-to-face relationships. Alexandra Hamlet, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. She reinforces Twenge’s observations, noting,
The less you are connected with human beings in a deep, empathic way, the less you’re really getting the benefits of a social interaction. The more superficial it is, the less likely it’s going to cause you to feel connected, which is something we all need.
FOMO. But it’s not just the lack of connection. It’s also something that’s come to be known as FOMO: Fear of missing out. Researchers, of course, have a more scientific term for it: perceived social isolation. In a nutshell, it’s the anxiety that everyone else is having a great time, but you’re not. You’re missing out.
The paradoxical result? Not only do you feel worse about your life, but you also feel compelled to spend more time on social media to make sure that you’re not missing out—which, of course, simply reinforces this vicious cycle.
For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out. Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly—on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it. Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups.
Comparison and Self-Esteem. The comparison issue shows up in other ways as well. Social media, of course, is often the venue in which we present images of our best selves doing the coolest things. And when we spend huge amounts of time looking at other people’s beautiful images—and teen girls are especially vulnerable to this habit—we feel worse about ourselves. Dr. Hamlet notes:
Many girls are bombarded with their friends posting the most perfect pictures of themselves, or they’re following celebrities and influencers who do a lot of Photoshopping and have makeup and hair teams. If that’s their model for what is normal, it can be very hard on their self-confidence.
And it’s not just teens—whose minds, bodies and identities are still very much being formed—who are susceptible to the perils of comparison. A recent British study indicated that one in eight adults there have struggled with suicidal thoughts related to body image, while one in 10 women there reported self-harming themselves because of negative body image issues. Among 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed, about 20% said that social media had caused them to worry about their body image.
Mark Rowland, the chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation (U.K.) said of the findings:
There has always been idealised body representation across media, but it’s the quantity of those images and the frequency in which we see them [now]—that’s what we’re worried about. … [And] Many people identified social media as an important factor causing them to worry about their body image.
The Suggestion of Self-Harm and Suicide. Comparing ourselves to others online can correlate with a negative effect on our self-esteem and body image. But scientists are also learning that people prone to self-injury (cutting, etc.) who watch others injuring themselves via social media are more likely to do so themselves.
A brand-new study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and published in New Media & Society found that “pictures of self-harm on Instagram may push viewers to self-harm, themselves.”
The study, authored by Florian Arendt, Sebastian Scherr and Daniel Romer, focused specifically on Instagram “due to its large number of publicly available, explicit, and graphic depictions of self-harm.” They summarized their findings by saying,
Analyses indicated that exposure to self-harm on Instagram was associated with suicidal ideation, self-harm, and emotional disturbance even controlling for exposure to other sources with similar content.
Sleep Disturbances. Finally, social media and smartphones are increasingly messing with our sleep—especially tweens and teens. Getting enough sleep has important correlations with all manner of physical and mental health outcomes. But another brand-new study by Common Sense Media, “The New Normal: Parents, Teens and Devices Around the World,” finds that our phones are working against us there, too.
Among the massive amount of data from this survey is the finding that 39% of teens keep their smartphones within an arm’s reach of their beds, while 29% actually have their phone in bed with them. And 36% of teens report waking up in the night to check their mobile devices—FOMO at work, even in the middle of the night!
In closing, it’s clear that the intertwined arrival of social media and smartphones has affected global culture in a revolutionary way. And for children growing up in the world today, this is just the “normal” way of relating, of living and of connecting with others. But even though it may be the new normal, research suggests it’s coming at a significant price to our young people’s mental health and even their very lives.
And that’s why Plugged In will continue to focus on these trends and what science is saying about them. We’ll keep helping you and your family move toward healthy boundaries and understanding outcomes like the ones described here when it comes to the way these technologies are influencing our lives, values, behaviors and relationships.