There is a unique mental health crisis facing teens and young adults, according to a new study released on Thursday. It found that rates of depressive episodes and serious psychological distress have dramatically risen among these age groups in recent years. The rate for older adults has not significantly changed.
Jean Twenge, a 47-year-old professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has spent much of her career studying the attitudes and beliefs of younger generations. Most recently, in 2017, Twenge published a book laying out her central argument that teens and young adults coming of age are especially lonely and disconnected. The source of this discontent is in part to the growing abundance of social media and devices like smartphones. Her book is titled iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.
A new study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and authored by Twenge and others, seems poised to rebut at least some of these criticisms of her book.
Twenge and her team looked at data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative survey of Americans’ lifestyle habits. They looked at more than 600,000 Americans across different age groups who took the survey from 2005 to 2017.
They tracked the rate of reported episodes of major depression and serious psychological distress, measured by how people responded to questions such as whether they ever felt “so sad or depressed that nothing could cheer them up.” They also focused on rates of suicide-related outcomes, such as how often people thought about suicide, formed plans to carry it out, and actually attempted it.
In 2008, for instance, around 5 percent of adults between the ages of 30 and 34 experienced serious distress, while 6.5 percent of the same group said the same in 2017—a 33 percent jump. Meanwhile, just over 8 percent of 20- and 21-year-olds experienced distress in 2008, compared to 14.4 percent in 2017—a 78 percent relative increase.
Twenge and her co-authors argue that since this rise in depression began in 2012, right around the time smartphones started becoming an universal accessory, they and similar devices have to be playing a large role.
Twenge doesn’t discount the value of technology, even in helping people stay mentally healthy, but she said there should be more work done to understand how these devices could be harming young people and how to better prevent that harm.