That young people are suffering an explosion of mental health issues is no secret. Anxiety and depression are through the roof, and social scientists are scrambling to find a cause so that whatever is driving kids over the edge can be undone. Extensive use of social media and electronic devices—exacerbated by the isolation of pandemic-era lockdowns—has taken much of the blame. But recent research says that psychological distress more likely results from depriving kids of unsupervised freedom. That's a larger problem that could take longer to fix.
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"From 2009 to 2017, major depression among 20- to 21-year-olds more than doubled, rising from 7 percent to 15 percent," Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, wrote in 2019. "Depression surged 69 percent among 16- to 17-year-olds. Serious psychological distress, which includes feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, jumped 71 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2008 to 2017…. By 2017, one out of five 12- to 17-year-old girls had experienced major depression in the previous year."
The situation worsened during the isolation of pandemic lockdowns. "Forty-six percent of parents say their teen has shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the start of the pandemic in March 2020," according to a University of Michigan survey.
Is Social Media at Fault?
Twenge launched the current wave of concern over teen mental health in 2017 with an article in The Atlantic that suggested our very online modern culture is the culprit. In that piece, she wrote: "the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we've not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we've placed in young people's hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy."
Twenge's recent book, Generations, builds on that theme. Her concerns are shared by prominent New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Last year, Haidt told the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Technology, Privacy, and the Law that "correlational studies consistently show a link between heavy social media use and mood disorders" among teens. He added, "moving from no social media use to one or two hours a day is often not associated with an increase in poor mental health, but as usage rises to 3 or 4 hours a day, the increases in mental illness often become quite sharp."
In a 2022 Pew Research survey of teens, 35 percent report using social media "almost constantly."
The convergence of deteriorating youth mental health and technology inevitably attracts political attention. GOP presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy wants to ban social media use by those under 16.
But what if compulsive use of smartphones and TikTok is more of a symptom than a cause?
"Much recent discussion of young people's mental health has focused on the role of increased use of digital technologies, especially involvement with social media," Peter Gray, David F. Lancy, and David F. Bjorklund write in "Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children's Mental Well-being: Summary of the Evidence," published this year in Journal of Pediatrics. "However, systematic reviews of research into this have provided little support for the contention that either total screen time or time involved with social media is a major cause of, or even correlate of, declining mental health."
The paper points to evidence of "declining mental health leading to more social media use" rather than the other way around. In fact, lead author Gray, a Boston College psychology professor, elsewhere speculates that a decline in the suicide rate for boys from about 1990 to 2005 might be attributed to the development of video games that "brought a renewed sense of freedom, excitement, mastery, and social connectedness to the lives of children and teens, thereby improving their mental health."
Loss of Independence
As their paper's title suggests the authors attribute the rise in youth mental health problems to increasing supervision, loss of freedom, and overprotectiveness—what is often referred to as "helicopter parenting." The authors cite evidence that play is essential to children's well-being, and that "play-like activity appears to be most satisfying and to fit most closely with children's own concept of play when it occurs away from adult oversight and intervention."
"Beyond play, other forms of independent activity also appear to promote young people's immediate wellbeing," the paper adds. "For example, an Australian study revealed that active travel to school (walking, cycling, or scootering) correlated positively with a measure of psychological wellbeing in primary school children. Another study, also in Australia, concluded that high-school students who held part-time jobs felt more independent and happier, overall, than those without such jobs."
But opportunities for unsupervised activity declined in recent decades. "Parents have reported that their children play independently outdoors far less than they themselves did as children and that they limit their children's freedom outdoors largely because of fears of crime and traffic," the authors write.
I'll add that driver's licenses are harder to come by for teens than in the past, limiting mobility: In 1984, nearly half of America's 16-year-olds could drive legally; as of 2021, a quarter could. Work rules and minimum wages restrict employment opportunities for teens. Curtailing options and freedom for kids is often done in the name of keeping kids safe, but it involves bad tradeoffs.
Overprotecting the Kids Into Mental Illness
"Parents today are regularly subject to messages about the dangers that might befall unsupervised children and the value of high achievement in school," add Gray and company. "But they hear little of the countervailing messages that if children are to grow up well-adjusted, they need ever-increasing opportunities for independent activity, including self-directed play and meaningful contributions to family and community life, which are signs that they are trusted, responsible, and capable."
The complication here is that if social media overuse is the culprit for anxiety and depression, the solution may be to limit screen time. But if kids are resorting to the electronic world because they've been driven nuts by smothering parenting, the damage may be too deeply rooted to undo in short order. Parents will have to be convinced to change their ways so that the next generation of kids has more autonomy than the current one and, hopefully, better mental health. That's a longer-term project than just taking away devices or banning TikTok.
If there's disagreement among experts over the causes of teen mental health problems, there's also a lot of common ground. Peter Gray and Jonathan Haidt work with Reason contributor Lenore Skenazy on Let Grow, an organization dedicated to "making it easy, normal and legal to give kids the independence they need to grow into capable, confident, and happy adults." And Haidt has collaborated with Twenge on youth mental health issues. If they have some differences, they all agree that too many young people are in distress and would benefit from more freedom in their lives—perhaps to connect with friends in-person rather than online.