We’re in the midst of a serious teen mental health crisis. The number of teenagers and young adults with clinical depression more than doubled between 2011 and 2021. The suicide rate for teenagers nearly doubled from 2007 to 2019, and tripled for 10 to 14 year- olds in particular. According to the C.D.C., nearly 25 percent of teenage girls made a suicide plan in 2021. What’s going on in the lives of teenagers that has produced such a startling uptick?
Jean Twenge, a research psychologist and author of the books “iGen” and “Generations,” has spent years poring over mental health statistics and survey data trying to answer this question. In her view, the story in the data is clear: Our teenage mental health crisis is the direct product of the rise of smartphones and social media.
- Ezra Klein
"And you think about what’s important for mental health overall, it’s relationships. Then, you think about teens in particular, that is what makes or breaks mental health for a teen, is their relationships, particularly their friendships. And the way those friendships were conducted changed completely." (Jean Twenge)
"So there’s all of the things that happen when a teen uses social media. So we can start with things like social comparison and body image issues. So this is what Facebook’s own research shows, as well as plenty of external academic research as well, that looking at, say, these ideal bodies on Instagram, or even the people you go to high school with, and they look more glamorous, and you’re comparing your body to theirs, and your appearance to theirs and coming up short...So that’s the social comparison piece, and lots of studies on this, that people that spend more time, and especially those who spend more time looking at those images on Instagram, if they have that tendency towards social comparison, that’s where you get the body image issues, appearance issues." (Jean Twenge)
So there are things that we can at least try to do, so no phones in the bedroom overnight is my favorite one. And that’s not just for teens, it’s for adults too — tons of sleep lab studies, as we talked about, that you’re not going to sleep as well if that phone is in your bedroom.
People have a tendency to, when they wake up in the middle of the night, look at it, and then that whole process starts over again with poor sleep. And many people’s protest to this is, yes, but I have to have my phone in my bedroom overnight because it’s my alarm clock. I have some advice for you. Buy an alarm clock. They’re cheap. You can buy two or three if you’re worried.
Then there’s other things to say, but — so I have three kids. We have tried to delay the smartphone as long as possible and to delay social media even further. And I do think that is a good idea. If the kid really needs a phone, get him a flip phone. Get him a pared down smartphone, like a Gabb phone, where you can text, talk, and take pictures, and that’s it. There’s no ability to download social media or access the internet. So there are some things that we can try. The difficulty is parental permission isn’t needed to get a social media account. And kids are supposed to be 13, but age isn’t actually verified. School laptops have YouTube on them, at least ours do.
So there’s only so much that individuals can do. Social media is extremely unregulated. And I think the time has come to regulate it more so we can have more of these solutions that are at a group level. So just as one example, if we raised the minimum age for social media to 16 and required age actually being verified and enforced that, social media would be out of middle schools. That’s already a time — developmentally, that’s very difficult, and social media makes it worse.
And then kids would not be able to make the argument, which so often happens, but everybody I know has Snapchat, Mom. Then they wouldn’t.