How Much Is Social Media to Blame for Teens’ Declining Mental Health?

The following is excerpted from an online article posted by the Institute for Family Studies, Jean Twenge.

What effect did the pandemic have on teen mental health? Based on a representative survey from spring 2021, the CDC found that a stunning 44% of American teens said they felt sad or hopeless during the last year.

What might be more surprising is this: 37% of teens reported feeling sad or hopeless in spring 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s up from 26% in 2009. Suicidal thoughts also increased between 2009 and 2019 (see Figure 1). Thus, the pandemic led to more mental health issues among teens, but this was not a sudden sharp uptick or a reversal of previous positive trends—teens started to report more sadness starting 10 years ago.

This survey is not alone in showing the pattern. Major depression (clinical-level depression that requires treatment) doubled between 2011 and 2019 among American teens. It then continued increasing into 2020 for girls, though it stayed the same for boys from before to during the pandemic.

The findings suggest two conclusions.

First, the pandemic produced complex patterns in teen mental health. It’s tempting to guess that the pandemic radically increased depression and suicide among teens, given the huge number of disruptions in their lives. Instead, the pandemic seemed to have the biggest impact on more common lower-level symptoms of depression, such as feeling sad or hopeless, while not having as big of an impact on less common and more serious issues, like suicidal thoughts or completed suicide. The exception to that pattern is the large increase in ER admissions for self-harm among young teen girls into 2020.

Second, these trends show that something began to go wrong in the lives of teens about 10 years ago. Although the pandemic led to much-needed attention to the issue of teen mental health, the increases in mental health issues among teens predate the pandemic by years—and in fact, some mental health indicators didn’t change at all between 2019 and 2020. That means we need to look elsewhere for the original cause.

I noticed the early increases in teen depression when I was writing my book about the generation born after 1995, titled iGen. At first, I had no idea why teen depression was increasing so much in such a short period of time. But then I noticed some big trends in teens’ social lives: They were spending less time with their friends in-person, and more time online. That tends not to be a good formula for mental health, especially for girls, and especially when that online time is spent on social media.

Thus, the high levels of teen depression are not going to go away even as the pandemic fades. Rates might decline a bit as things get back to normal, but as long as teens are scrolling through Instagram more, and hanging out in person with their friends less, depression is likely to remain at historically high levels.

Source: Institute for Family Studies, Jean Twenge

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[reposted by] Jim Liebelt

Jim is Senior Writer, Editor and Researcher for HomeWord. Jim has 40 years of experience as a youth and family ministry specialist, having served over the years as a pastor, author, consultant, mentor, trainer, college instructor, and speaker. Jim’s HomeWord culture blog also appears on and Jim and his wife Jenny live in Quincy, MA.

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