A tweet from my colleague Jean Twenge—a world-class expert at tracking youth well-being in massive data sets—alerted me to the recently released 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Among its dozens of results, which you can view here, several struck me as worthy of note by high school and college teachers, administrators, and counselors.
First some good news: From 2002 to 2018, cigarette smoking plummeted and is now but 2.7 percent of U.S. 12- to 17-year-olds. Reaching back to 1976, high school senior smoking has plunged even more, from 28.8 percent to 3.6 percent. Although smoking has become gauche, seniors’ e-cigarette use has soared—from 1.5 percent in 2010 to 26.7 percent in 2018. (Will widely publicized news of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths reverse this trend?)
The not-so-good news: From 2011 to 2018, major depressive episodes increased from 11 to 14 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds, and, similarly, from 8 to 14 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds.
Not surprisingly, youth and young adults’ increased rate of depression has been accompanied by an increase in suicidal thoughts (shown below), suicide attempts, and actual suicides (see new CDC data here).
As I explained in a previous TalkPsych.com essay, the increase in teens’ (especially teen girls’) vulnerability to depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide has occurred in other Western countries as well, and it corresponds neatly with the spread of smart phones and social media. That fact of life has stimulated new research that
- correlates teens’ social media use with their mental health.
- follows teens longitudinally (through time) to see if their social media use predicts their future mental health.
- experiments by asking if volunteers randomly assigned to a restrained social media diet become, compared with a control group, less depressed and lonely.
Stay tuned. This scientific story is still being written, amid some conflicting results. As Twenge summarizes in a concise and readable new essay, up to two hours of daily screen time predicts no lessening of teen well-being. But as daily screen time increases to six hours—with associated diminishing of face-to-face relationships, sleep, exercise, reading, and time outdoors—the risk of depression and anxiety rise.
The alarming rise in youth and young adult depression, especially over such a thin slice of history, compels our attention. Is screen time the major culprit (both for its drain on other healthy activities and for the upward social comparisons of one’s own mundane life with the lives of cooler-seeming others)? If not, what other social forces are at work? And what can be done to protect and improve youth and young adult well-being?
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)