Mental Health Issues Among Youth Significantly Increased Over Last Decade

A new national study, published in the March 2019 Journal of Abnormal Psychology, found sharp increases over the last decade in the number of young adults and adolescents who reported experiencing negative psychological symptoms. While the researchers did not study the cause of these increases, they have theories. The lead author says that shifting cultural trends among the youth over the past decade, including increased use of electronic communications, social media, and lack of sleep, may have had a larger effect on mood disorders among the younger generation.

Study Results

“We found a substantial increase in major depression or suicidal thoughts, serious psychological distress which includes anxiety and hopelessness, and more attempted suicides after 2010, versus the mid-2000s, and that increase was by far the largest in adolescents and young adults,” said lead author Jean Twenge, author of the book “iGen” and professor of psychology at San Diego State University. “These trends are weak or non-existent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders instead of an overall increase across all ages.”

The researchers analyzed data from the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative survey that has looked at drug and alcohol use, mental health, and other health-related issues in U.S. individuals age 12 and over since 1971. They discovered:

  • The rate of individuals reporting symptoms consistent with major depression in the last 12 months increased 52% in adolescents from 2005 to 2017 and 63% in young adults age 18 to 25 from 2009 to 2017.
  • The number of young adults experiencing serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days increased 71% from 2008 to 2017.
  • The rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased 47% from 2008 to 2017.
  • No significant increase was seen in the percentage of adults age 26 and over experiencing depression or psychological distress during those time periods.


Reasons for the Trend

The researchers did not study the reasons behind the trend, but they have some ideas.

Social media. The increase in mood disorders corresponds with the timing that social media became prevalent. Recent studies have shown that more social media use is associated with increased reported symptoms of social anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness. For example, a study of nearly 11,000 adolescents in Britain published in early 2019 found that those who were heavy users of social media were two to three times more likely to be depressed as those who did not use social media. Other studies have also shown that spending time with people face to face is a big protective factor against depression. Younger generations have significantly less “in person” social interaction than any previous generation. However, the study authors caution against assuming cause and effect, noting that it’s possible that teens could have depressive symptoms and therefore spend more time on social media as a way to cope. The researchers suggest that more research is needed to understand how digital communication versus face-to-face social interaction influences mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes.

Sleep deprivation. The new survey also found that young people are not sleeping as much as previous generations, which may also play a role in the rise of mental health issues. Previous research has proven that sleep deprivation affects mood and is associated with anxiety and depression. The study authors also noted that teenagers use social media in a way that negatively affects their sleep. They are exposed to light right before bed, they stay up too late engaging online, and they are even woken up by alerts on their phones.

What Parents Can Do

Parents need to take a four-pronged approach to combat this trend:

  • Be aware of the warning signs of depression, suicide, and anxiety. If you see these signs, seek professional help for your teen.
  • Limit overall social media use. Many phones offer weekly reports on screen time amounts. Encourage your teen to reduce their social media use by a certain amount – consider making it a family challenge with a reward at the end.
  • Encourage youth to engage in social activities. Spending time with people face to face will help protect your teen against depression. Consider establishing family dinners a few times a week, suggesting an extracurricular activity or class, or helping your teen find a part-time job or community service activity.
  • Encourage healthy sleep patterns. Set a “phone curfew” for the entire family (parents need to role model this behavior) so that everyone discontinues phone use within one hour of bedtime. Establish charging stations for the night outside the bedrooms. This will limit screen light before bed, encourage an earlier bedtime, and prevent sleep interruption.

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