It’s been clear for a while: this generation isn’t like the others. Parents are working to raise their children in an environment quite unlike the one they experienced growing up. However, so much of the conversation about generational differences is still focused on millennials and how they’re disrupting everything from traditional employment to restaurant offerings. Maybe we haven’t been focusing enough on today’s teens and, specifically, their mental health.
In October, Time reported that “Between 2010 and 2016, the number of adolescents who experienced at least one major depressive episode leaped by 60%.” Meanwhile, teen suicide rates have been steadily climbing, with the rate among girls reaching a 40-year high in 2015. What gives? Why is this generation especially prone to mental illness?
According to this new study, the smartphone could be to blame.
Examining the Evidence
About 77 percent of Americans have a smartphone, up from 35 percent in 2011. Among teenagers, 73 percent had access to a smartphone as of 2015. In this article, study author Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, wrote:
“… increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country….smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase.”
But what about economic issues or academic pressure? Researchers considered those potential causes but ruled them out: 2010 and the following years featured economic growth and low unemployment, and careful study revealed that teens were spending the same amount of time on homework as they had in previous years.
Though excessive internet use has been linked to depression and anxiety for a while, the reverse has also been considered: perhaps people who are depressed spend more time online. Twenge writes,
“The argument…doesn’t also explain why depression increased so suddenly after 2012. Under that scenario, more teens became depressed for an unknown reason and then started buying smartphones, which doesn’t seem too logical.”
Furthermore, this isn’t the only study to point to screen time as the culprit for the increase in teen depression. The article mentions three other studies (you can see them here, here, and here), all of which indicated that social media use has a negative effect on well-being.
Why It’s a Problem (Even If Your Teen Doesn’t Seem Depressed)
Depression and suicide are complicated problems that may have complicated causes. Genetics, home environment, past traumas, and bullying can all contribute to anxiety and depression. The smartphone may not be the only contributing factor to a mental health issue, but it could be the one that pushes a teen who is at risk over the edge.
Twenge also points out two concerns regarding excessive smartphone use, both of which could contribute to depression and other issues like poor academic performance, irritability, and poor decision-making skills:
Lack of Sleep
Teens may stay up late or even wake up in the middle of the night to check their phones. Part of this is FOMO (the fear of missing out): they want to make sure they’re in constant contact with their friends and fully aware of whatever is going on. They might also play games, edit photos, chat, or browse social media profiles.
This CBS News article says that late-night smartphone use not only replaces sleep, the content stimulates the child’s brain and the light from the screen suppresses melatonin, making it more likely he or she will have trouble falling asleep even after the phone gets put away for the night.
Not getting enough sleep can lead to forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, lowered alertness, poor reasoning skills and impaired judgment, health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure, weight gain, and, of course, depression.
Less Real-World Interaction
As kids and teens spend more time online, they spend less time with their friends and in nature. Unfortunately, “Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide.” A strong real-life social network boosts immunity and helps you sleep well.
Meanwhile, spending time outdoors can relieve stress, improve your ability to concentrate, increase your energy levels, boost your immune system, and improve your mood. Involvement in music, sports, martial arts, dance, and other activities get teens away from the smartphones for a while and give them an opportunity to develop a skill they might use for the rest of their lives.
Even if your teen’s depression doesn’t lead to something as tragic as suicide, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll “grow out of it” or manage to heal herself. Depression isn’t imaginary and it’s not merely teenage drama. Mental health is as important as physical health; depression is something that can impact your child’s self-esteem, social life, and decision-making, and it could follow him into adulthood.
Signs of Depression
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises watching your child for these signs of depression:
- Disinterest in enjoyable activities.
- Lack of motivation.
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits.
- Changes in energy level.
- Ongoing irritability or feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
- Difficulty focusing and paying attention.
- Feeling useless.
- Self-harm and other self-destructive behavior.
Protecting Your Teen’s Mental Health
First, do what you can to encourage a healthy lifestyle for your child, both physically and mentally. Of course, given the many factors that may contribute to depression, you may not be able to prevent depression. However, there are a few things you can do:
- Boost His Self-Esteem: Help him get involved in activities that interest him, and celebrate his improvements and successes.
- Manage Stress: Acknowledge the pressures of school and social life, and help her explore ways to manage that stress: yoga, exercise, time in nature, time with pets, or anything else she finds relaxing.
- Promote a Healthy Lifestyle: Proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise can help prevent a wide variety of health issues, including depression.
- Limit Screen Time: As the evidence piles up, we can’t ignore the connection between screen time and depression. As Twenge writes, “…the downside to limiting screen time…is minimal. In contrast, the downside to doing nothing – given the possible consequences of depression and suicide – seems, to me, quite high.” With that in mind, use trustworthy parental controls to disable the internet when you don’t want your teen to be online. Limit their use to just a couple of hours per day if you wanted, or simply block their social apps at night to help ensure a good night’s sleep while still allowing to listen to music. As an added bonus, you can block sites that are especially damaging to self-esteem (like those that allow users to determine how pretty or ugly someone is) or that you deem inappropriate.
If your child does exhibit signs of depression, it’s important to seek professional help.
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