The rates of mental health-related incidents among teens and young adults continue to rise, according to a new analysis of data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
The analysis demonstrates that the proportion of U.S. teens who reported symptoms of a major depressive episode within the past year rose from 8.7% in 2005 to 13.2% in 2017. Young adults ages 18-25 reported similar trends.
“It’s very unusual to see changes this large happen in such a short period of time,” says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and co-author of the analysis. She adds that the data suggests a “cohort effect,” and that the recent spike in mental health challenges could have a systemic cause.
Twenge argues that this underlying cause is the increase in teen social media and smartphone use. She notes that the upward trend in mental health challenges in teens correlates with the rising popularity of devices like the iPhone.
In fact, according to Common Sense Media, today’s teens spend an average of nine hours per day online, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children spend two hours or less on sedentary screen time each day. And a survey by Pew Research Center shows that more than half of teens (54%) acknowledge that they spend too much time on their cellphones.
Writing for EdSurge, Sandy Oreo, founder of online learning platform Little Writer, explains that sedentary (or passive) screen time refers to “when a child passively consumes digital content with no thought, creativity or interaction,” including scrolling through social media or watching TV.
But children and teens can learn to use screens in a “healthy, beneficial way,” Oreo adds. In fact, according to a study by the University of Michigan, “how children use the devices, not how much time they spend on them, is the strongest predictor of emotional or social problems connected with screen addiction.” These problems may include psychological issues such as lack of sleep and social isolation, according to Twenge.
“We can’t change a lot of the causes of mental-health issues,” says Twenge. “We can’t change genetics, we can’t change childhood trauma…But we can help [children and teens] use their leisure time in a healthier way.”
For instance, children and teens can replace passive screen use with active screen use. According to one Australian study on the subject, children can actually benefit from physical screen use, such as playing active video games like Nintendo Switch, and cognitive screen use, such as playing online coding games or writing poetry.But not everyone is convinced passive screen time is to blame for the rising rates of teen mental health challenges. Writing for Education Week, Evie Blad notes that alternative research on adolescent mental health suggests that screen time has minimal psychological effects. In fact, some researchers speculate that social media use has actually helped children forge social bonds.
“If you already have the propensity to have mental illness and depression, then it sometimes gives you that crutch to continue to self-isolate,” says Kristina Macbury, the principal of Sarah Pyle Academy in Wilmington, Delaware. She adds that with smartphone use, moderation is key.
According to Macbury, the problem isn’t excessive screen time or phone use, it’s a lack of resources in schools to adequately address mental illness. In fact, a recent ACLU analysis of federal data suggests that just three states meet the recommended ratio of at least one school counselor per 250 students, and the same number meet the recommended ratio of at least one psychologist per 750 students (Blad, Education Week, 3/14; Oreo, EdSurge, 3/1).
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