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A recent report from Pew Research has found that, for the first time, teenagers are naming anxiety and depression as the most significant issue their age demographic is facing today. As a college student who has both struggled with, and seen those around me struggle with, mental health issues, I am not surprised by this conclusion. My parents often talk to me about how anxiety and depression seem so much more prevalent in teen life today than when they were children, leaving them with the same persistent question: What’s changed? After talking with some peers and ruminating on personal experience, I began to realize some of what I consider to be the main factors contributing to this perceived phenomenon.
The most obvious explanation for this increase in mental health issues is the introduction of social media and its rapid integration into everyday life, which is particularly heightened during the teenage years. Apps such as Instagram and Snapchat perpetuate a culture of comparison by enabling young adults to cultivate a curated image of what they want people to see — showing off their “highlight reel,” but never the “behind-the-scenes.” “Likes” have become our end-all-be-all of social approval and increase our need for instantaneous satisfaction over genuine human connection (check out these great Thrive on Campus articles on this subject: “Navigating Social Media and College” and “Is There An App for Being Yourself?“). Sometimes social media even contributes to anxiety and depression through glorifying and romanticizing mental illness, as websites such as Tumblr have been accused of perpetuating.
In addition to the expanding cultural influence of social media, another contributing factor to teenage depression and anxiety is the mounting academic pressure young people face. It is undeniable that it is much harder to get accepted to college today than it was 20 years ago, a fact reflected by rapidly shrinking acceptance rates worldwide. According to Alisa Caira (Brown ’22), “College is no longer seen as a great thing to do, but rather as a necessity [for success in life].” Additionally, Ben Silverman (Brown ’22) cites the increasingly difficulty of getting jobs in the modern workforce as another cause of stress, stating that due to globalization, “we’re now competing on an international scale rather than just a local scale.” Teenagers are losing sleep, skipping meals, and sacrificing both their physical and mental health in the name of studying and piling on extracurriculars — all in hopes of receiving a college acceptance letter or an entry-level job offer that may never come.
A third possibility contributing towards Pew Research’s findings has to do with a societal shift in how teenagers plan their futures. In a recent lecture for my sociology class, my professor, Michael Kennedy, ruminated on the fact that there is now less “taking identity for granted” in comparison to when our parents were growing up — when the world felt much smaller and most teenagers had their pre-determined paths set out for them from the start. Today, thanks to globalization and developments in technology, teens have more choice and can play a greater role in shaping the trajectory of their life and experiences; while this is positive in many ways, with this increase in choice and breaking categorical boxes can also come more responsibility and uncharted territory, thus leading to an increase in anxiety. In the words of Sloane Kratzman (Brown ’22), teenagers are now “supposed to have [our] whole [lives] together.” Quite the expectation to set on an age demographic that can’t vote, legally drink, or drive a rental car in the United States.
Perhaps another, more optimistic reason for the shifts in young people’s attitudes towards anxiety and depression haven’t occurred because of the changes listed above, but rather are the result of an increasing destigmatization in the way we talk about mental health. In Silverman’s words, “People have always faced [depression and anxiety]… it’s always been around. There’s a stigma around it that is slowly going away — especially on college campuses. People are much more open to talking about it now.” Maybe the greatest explanation is that in our 21st century zeitgeist, which places a significant emphasis on identity and emotional intelligence, teenagers are simply more willing to discuss these issues now than they previously have been. Regardless of the specific reasons behind Pew Research’s report findings, the most important reactive measure is starting a positive conversation around mental health and how we can ameliorate its negative effects on the youth demographic.
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