Depression is skyrocketing among American teens

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

Conventional wisdom is that the rise of youth mental health problems took hold as a result of the pandemic. New data shows that unhealthy youth mental health trends actually began spiking in 2014 and continue to increase today. 

In 1991, about 25% of teenagers agreed with the statement, “I can’t do anything right.” By 2011, it was 30%. Today, it’s 50%. 

In 1991, about 25% of teenagers agreed with the statement, “My life is not useful.” By 2011, it was still about 25%. Today, it’s 44%. 

In 1991, about 21% of teenagers agreed with the statement, “I do not enjoy life.” By 2011, it was still about 21%. Today, it is 49%. 

In all three cases, the numbers began spiking around 2014. Throughout the pandemic, that acceleration only increased. 

Dr. Vivek Murthy

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is so alarmed by the trends in youth mental health that he declared it a national emergency earlier this year. He calls youth mental health, “the defining public health crisis of our time.” 

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

What can parents do to support their kids? Murthy gives this advice. “The most important thing that you can do for your child during turbulence is to make sure that they know you love them and that they can talk to you,” he says. “For them just to know it’s OK for them to talk to you, it’s not something to be ashamed of, and there are people they can go to for help.” 

Dr. Jean Twenge

Murthy believes the key is showing teens that they are not alone. This view is shared by renowned psychiatrist Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. In 2017, she began sounding the alarm bell after watching trends in Monitoring the Future data. 

What was the cause of the sudden spike in youth depression and suicide rates? For Twenge, the answer was simple. Smartphones and social media. She said that in 2012 smartphone usage reached a critical mass, and that’s precisely when youth mental trends began spiking. 

Dr. Jean Twenge, San Diego State University

Twenge argues that the major change we began seeing after 2012, which was a variance from previous generations, was how American teens spent their time outside of school. For example, since the 1970s, the amount of time teens spent hanging out with friends remained constant. Until 2010. Time spent with friends took a nosedive, and time spent on social media skyrocketed. 

“Going to the mall has gone down. Driving in the car for fun has gone down. Going to the movies has gone down,” Twenge says. “We’re talking about kids who are spending five, six, seven hours a day on social media.”

According to recent data from Pew Research, almost half of American teenagers say they are online “almost constantly.” 

The resulting loneliness is most marked among teens, but it’s also prevalent among American adults. According to a recent American Perspectives survey, half of American adults report having less than three friends. 

Dr. Ayne Amjad

Dr. Ayne Amjad, former state health officer of West Virginia, agrees with Murthy and Twenge. She believes increases in depression and social media usage are linked. “These types of platforms are a false sense of reality and cause children to bully each other, compare their lives to others, and to gauge popularity.” 

Dr. Ayne Amjad, former state health officer, West Virginia

But she doesn’t think social media is solely to blame. Like Twenge, she also points to less time interacting face-to-face with family and friends. “If you go out, you see everyone at the table on their phones. There’s no talking or interaction happening.”

For parents wondering how to navigate their children’s mental health, Amjad offers practical advice. “Sometimes what is important to them (kids) may seem trivial to us. Be supportive and understanding of what they are experiencing. Try to engage them in family activities. Go with them to the doctor and also give them space to talk alone to the doctor.”

Stay tuned to RealWV for further information on youth mental health.


Related stories

Give us your feedback