America’s teens are not all right. As Derek Thompson recently wrote in an Atlantic article entitled “Why American Teens are So Sad.”
From 2009-2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26% to 44%. [This] is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded. [Almost] every measure of mental health is getting worse, for every teenage demographic, and it’s happening all across the country.
What Thompson is describing goes far beyond typical adolescent angst. In fact, according to the National Institute of Health, other risky behaviors traditionally chalked up to adolescence— such as drinking and driving, fighting at school, and even underage sex — are significantly down. Nor can these declines in mental health be blamed on the pandemic or lockdowns. Rather, these were “pre-existing conditions” that, though certainly aggravated, were not caused by the social chaos of the last two years.
Thompson suggests four converging cultural realities that are contributing to this crisis: social media, social isolation, the extra-stressful global situation, and today’s parenting styles.
Over a decade ago, psychologist Jean Twenge warned about the effect of smartphones on teenage brains. Since then, the prevalence of social media has unleashed new levels of comparison, exposure, and image problems on a demographic already wired to care too much about what their peers think. Instagram’s own research found that while a third of teenage girls say the app “makes them feel worse,” they cannot keep from logging on.
Even so, writes Thompson, the biggest problem with social media might be not social media itself, but rather the activities that it replaces. [Compared] with their counterparts in the 2000s, today’s teens are less likely to go out with their friends, get their driver’s license, or play youth sports.
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