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The Perfect Storm

Dr. Lisa Rouff explores the increase in teen mental health problems that could be caused by a combination of increased social isolation, increased social media use, and lack of sleep

If one thing is clear from the data that has emerged during and since the pandemic, it’s that the kids are not alright.  Mental health diagnoses and psychiatric hospitalizations have skyrocketed among children, especially teenagers.  In this article from Forbes, Mark Travers interviews child and adolescent therapist Dustin Wagner, who posits a three-pronged explanation for the increase in teen mental health problems.  First, social media use among teens had already been rising, and had already been linked to depression, low self-esteem, and other mental health problems.  During the pandemic, social media use rose sharply, meaning that teens had even more exposure to potentially psychologically damaging stimuli.  In addition, the pandemic caused teens to experience sudden and profound social isolation.  This caused two negative effects—it forced teens to rely more on social media contact as their main source of socialization, and took away the real-life reality check that in-person interactions often have.  This can cause teens to turn inward, focusing only on their own experience, and consequently becoming overwhelmed.

To add to this toxic mix, teens, both during the pandemic and now, are getting less sleep now than prior generations of teens.  Perhaps this could be due to late-night social media use and the sudden loss of their structured schedule.  In any case, chronic sleep deprivation is well documented to increase the prevalence of depression and anxiety, as any parent of a newborn can tell you.  This can create teens who have less resources and resiliency to deal with an increased set of problems—and that is the perfect recipe for mental illness.

Although things have largely returned to normal, it’s important to remember that teens will likely still feel the effects of the pandemic because it interfered with their normal emotional, academic, and social development.  Schools have been seeing an increase in behavior problems, along with a loss of learning, in the classroom, making the school environment more stressful for many students—creating a vicious circle.  It may take several years for teens’ development to catch up with them, and to me, this suggests that as a society, we should invest time and money into helping this generation of teens recover from the pandemic.

Although the research on this topic hasn’t been completed yet, I think Travers and Wagner highlight an important explanation for the increase in teen mental health problems.  Social media’s role in teen mental health is even being challenged legally.  This month, the US Supreme Court will hear a case where a school district is suing social media companies to hold them liable for the psychologically damaging content that users may post.  Currently, under an administrative rule called Section 230, social media companies are not held liable for the content that users post on their platforms, even if this content is false, violent, or harmful to others.  It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court will allow social media corporations carte blanche to allow users to post content damaging to teen mental health.  It’s clear, however, that social media in its current form is highly correlated with increases in teen mental illness.

As for parents, I think the biggest takeaway here is that we need to get our kids out of the house more and around other humans.  I recognize that this can often be difficult, especially if depression and anxiety are already occurring for a teen.  My mother always told me that she kept my brother and I as busy as possible to prevent us from having the time or energy to get into trouble.  I think we may have been the first generation of overscheduled kids—my mom was clearly ahead of her time on that one.  However, I do think that there is some method to her madness, and with my own kids, I have observed that if they are socially engaged in some activity with other kids—a sport, a club, an enrichment class, etc., they generally seem more cheerful afterward (of course this comes after all the whining that goes into getting them to do it in the first place).  I also find that I’m more cheerful when I’m out in the world doing something instead of doom-scrolling on my phone, so this may apply to grownups as well.  Being conscious about increasing positive social contact while decreasing social media use, as well as trying to get some sleep, may help our teens rebound faster, and get back on track developmentally.

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