Teenagers and young adults are in the midst of a unique mental health crisis, suggests a new study Thursday. He found that rates of depressive episodes and severe psychological distress have increased dramatically among these age groups in recent years, while they are unlikely to have decreased or even decreased for the older age groups.
Lead author Jean Twenge, a 47-year-old psychology professor at San Diego State University, spent much of his career studying the attitudes and beliefs of the younger generation. More recently, in 2017, Twenge published a book on social sciences that sets out his central argument that adolescents and young adults are particularly lonely and disconnected, thanks in part to the growing abundance of social media and devices such as smartphones . His book is titled iGen: Why today's super-connected children are growing less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy and completely unprepared for adulthood
The book and work of Twenge had his detractors, who argue that his theory is backed up by weak and collected evidence, or that other factors besides smartphones could be the real culprit behind a legitimate increase in teenage depression. A new study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and written by Twenge and others, seems ready to refute at least some of these criticisms.
Twenge and his team reviewed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationwide representative survey of Americans' lifestyle habits. In total, they examined over 600,000 Americans in different age groups who participated in the survey from 2005 to 2017.
In recent years they have monitored the rate of episodes of severe depression and severe psychological distress, measured by the way people they answered questions as if they had never felt "so sad or depressed that nothing could cheer them up". They also looked at the rates of suicide outcomes, such as how often people thought about suicide, they made plans to make it happen and actually
for almost all age groups above 18, the rate of serious discomfort encountered in the last month increased between 2008 and 2017 (2008 was the first year in which adult suffering rates were monitored). But this growth has been much more dramatic among young adults
. In 2008, for example, about 5% of adults aged between 30 and 34 had serious problems, while 6.5% of the same group stated the same in 2017: 33 percent jump. Meanwhile, slightly more than 8% of children aged 20 and 21 suffered for 2008, compared to 14.4% in 2017 – a relative increase of 78%.
A similar model is true for episodes of major depression and suicide-related outcomes: in 2017, adolescents and young people had higher rates of depression than they had a decade earlier, while the rate of depression for most age groups over 30 were actually lower in 2017 than in 2009 (the elderly were the exception)  Younger people tend to suffer from depression and other mood problems more than Older people. But the results suggest that today's youth have to deal with more depression and anxiety than young people did a decade ago. And even if part of this melancholy could be due to cultural factors that affect everyone to some extent, it is affected by the younger ones.
The study cannot provide any direct evidence of what is causing this disparity, which is a common criticism of Twenge's work. But according to Twenge, it seems to exclude that factors such as the Great Recession are particularly relevant.
"If economic causes were to blame, it would not make much sense that the depression peaked in 2017 when the unemployment rate was at historic lows, and be lower during the years of recession, when unemployment was high" , he told Gizmodo. "Furthermore, if economic factors were responsible, one would expect that the increase would be greater among working-age adults, who are directly affected by changes in the labor market. Instead, it is the younger who shows the greatest increases. of depression, including children aged 12 to 17, who are spared the direct effects of concern about supporting a family during economic times. "
Twenge and his co-authors maintain that since this increase in depression began in 2012, just in the period in which smartphones have started to become a universal accessory, they and other similar devices must play an important role. They could make it even more difficult for teenagers and young people to sleep – lack of sleep is a known driver of poor mental health – or limit the amount of face-to-face social interaction people get with their friends and family. And while these same effects could also happen to millennials and older generations, the authors say, they would be more influential to people in their formative years.
Regardless of the exact causes, it is known that depressed and suicidal adolescents are more likely to suffer as adults, so this large wave of depression among young people could cause ripples years or even decades down the road. And since there seems to be no end to growth, at least now, things could get worse.
Twenge does not underestimate the value of technology, even in helping people stay mentally healthy, but he said there should be more work to understand how these devices could harm young people and how to better prevent this damage. In the immediate future, he said, all of us, but especially teenagers, could probably get up to leave our phones outside the bedroom, turn off our devices an hour before going to bed and limit the time spent on screen outside of work or school at two hours a day or less.
If you or someone you know is having a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or write the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.