Anxiety is Now the Most Pressing Mental Health Problem For American Teens

The question is why.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Since 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, has surveyed more than 15 million incoming college freshmen about their background, their high school experiences and their attitudes about life. In 1985, 18 percent of respondents agreed with a statement saying they “felt overwhelmed” by all they had to do the previous year. In 2010, that number climbed to 29 percent. Then, in 2016, it shot up to 41 percent.

In a recent New York Times’ Magazine cover story, Benoit Denizet-Lewis uses this and other stats to argue that teens in America today are more worried than those that came before. Here’s another data point to add to the evidence: Over the last decade, anxiety eclipsed depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services.

Denizet-Lewis’s reporting points to a generational difference at play: Life is different for today’s teens compared to those who grew up before them. And while there are certainly multiple causes, as is the case with any complex, large-scale psychological trend, the influence of social media is now undeniable.

San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me (about millennials) and iGen (about Gen Z), says that it took her a minute to arrive at that conclusion. Social media “seemed like too easy an explanation for negative mental-health outcomes in teens, and there wasn’t much evidence for it,” she tells Denizet-Lewis. But other explanations—including the economy—just didn’t shake out. Teen anxiety started spiking in 2011, after the recession was already turning around.

Social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat ensure there’s never a break from the social pressures of high school. “Many of the parents I spoke to worried that their kids’ digital habits — round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers — were partly to blame for their children’s struggles,” Denizet-Lewis writes. The trope used to be that teens would spend way too much time talking into the telephone; now they’re keeping up Snapstreaks.

As Thrive Global has reported before, teen self-harm and suicide both go up during the school year, and decrease in the summer months. Social media has exacerbated the already complicated lives of teens, who are, at a neural level, more sensitive to social approval—both in-person and in likes—than adults.

Guy Diamond, PhD, who directs Drexel University’s Family Intervention Science program for depressed, substance-abusing or suicidal adolescents, says that social media has allowed social pressures and bullying to “scale,” in the parlance of Silicon Valley. “With social media, the personal becomes the public in a way that a lot of kids don’t know how to handle it,” he tells Thrive Global. “Even bullying used to be more of an isolated act. Even if it happened in the lunchroom, ten people would see it. Now a thousand people see it.”

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