Why did mental health fall off a cliff at the same time and in the same way in the USA, The UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand? Part 1 of 3.
I recently finished Cal Newport's "Digital Minimalism", and there were a few passages I found really insightful:
"𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘣𝘭𝘦𝘮 𝘪𝘴 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘴𝘰𝘤𝘪𝘢𝘭 𝘮𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘢 𝘥𝘪𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘭𝘺 𝘮𝘢𝘬𝘦𝘴 𝘶𝘴 𝘶𝘯𝘩𝘢𝘱𝘱𝘺...𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘬𝘦𝘺 𝘪𝘴𝘴𝘶𝘦 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘴𝘰𝘤𝘪𝘢𝘭 𝘮𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘢 𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘴 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘢𝘬𝘦 𝘱𝘦𝘰𝘱𝘭𝘦 𝘢𝘸𝘢𝘺 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘭-𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘭𝘥 𝘴𝘰𝘤𝘪𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘻𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵'𝘴 𝘮𝘢𝘴𝘴𝘪𝘷𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘷𝘢𝘭𝘶𝘢𝘣𝘭𝘦. 𝘈𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘯𝘦𝘨𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘴𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘺, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘶𝘴𝘦 𝘴𝘰𝘤𝘪𝘢𝘭 𝘮𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘢, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘥𝘦𝘷𝘰𝘵𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘰𝘧𝘧𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘦 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘴𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘷𝘢𝘭𝘶𝘦 𝘥𝘦𝘧𝘪𝘤𝘪𝘵 𝘣𝘦𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 - 𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘷𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘩𝘦𝘢𝘷𝘪𝘦𝘴𝘵 𝘴𝘰𝘤𝘪𝘢𝘭 𝘮𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘢 𝘶𝘴𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘮𝘶𝘤𝘩 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘭𝘰𝘯𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘮𝘪𝘴𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘣𝘭𝘦...𝘖𝘧𝘧𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘦 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘳𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘣𝘭𝘺 𝘳𝘪𝘤𝘩 𝘣𝘦𝘤𝘢𝘶𝘴𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘳𝘦𝘲𝘶𝘪𝘳𝘦 𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘣𝘳𝘢𝘪𝘯𝘴 𝘵𝘰 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘤𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘭𝘢𝘳𝘨𝘦 𝘢𝘮𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘵𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘪𝘯𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘢𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘴𝘶𝘣𝘵𝘭𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘢𝘭𝘰𝘨 𝘤𝘶𝘦𝘴 𝘴𝘶𝘤𝘩 𝘢𝘴 𝘣𝘰𝘥𝘺 𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘶𝘢𝘨𝘦, 𝘧𝘢𝘤𝘪𝘢𝘭 𝘦𝘹𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘴𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘷𝘰𝘪𝘤𝘦 𝘵𝘰𝘯𝘦. 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘰𝘸-𝘣𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘸𝘪𝘥𝘵𝘩 𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘴𝘶𝘱𝘱𝘰𝘳𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘣𝘺 𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘺 𝘥𝘪𝘨𝘪𝘵𝘢𝘭 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘮𝘶𝘯𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘰𝘰𝘭𝘴...𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘮𝘰𝘴𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘩𝘪𝘨𝘩-𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘴𝘰𝘤𝘪𝘢𝘭 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘤𝘦𝘴𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘯𝘦𝘵𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬𝘴 𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘶𝘴𝘦𝘥."
This seems to complement Twenge's argument about children's lack of free play. Apart from school, when a child's primary means of connecting with others and developing social skills is through social media, where their frames of reference on how to treat themselves and others is presented in the most superficial and histrionic ways, how much of their growth is stunted thanks to these fast food substitutes?
Anecdotally speaking, I find myself preferring to text people instead of calling them, to have random conversations instead of scheduling a dedicated time to connect with them. It's so gosh darn easy to use these shortcuts when you have a smartphone! Lately I've been trying to encourage friends to text me less and either meet up with me in person or at least have a video chat so we can give each other our full attention. For some, it's very foreign to them!
If smartphones are here to stay, let's make sure we're using this technology intentionally and with discipline so it doesn't use us. If it's hard for a 31 year old like me to do this, I can't imagine how hard it is for young teenagers with much more on their plates!
Social media may not be real life, but the behaviors it and smartphones encourage (fragmented multi-tasking, constant notification checking, social comparisons) are seeping into our real lives whether we like it or not.
I am just back from Slovakia where I ditched the women's conference I was there for and instead sat on the sidewalk and listened to people, as I started doing in San Francisco 8 years ago for Sidewalk Talk. And my second day listening only high schoolers sat down and talked. Not a representative sample because they self selected to come to talk to me, were out of the house at a street food market, but they were one generation out of communist rule. So they had a focus that was about thriving rather than social comparison. And that felt marked to me.
But I am write this as a psychotherapist getting ready to go into a day of sessions after another shooting of young school age kids. And I know it will be a topic of conversation. I am readying a paper by psychoanalytically oriented therapists here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/10.1080/15289168.2023.2167045 And what they highlight that I want to bring in is loneliness as an add on to safetyism and social comparison. And I don't mean run-of-the-mill loneliness but existential terrifying loneliness. This paper suggests teens are being incredibly let down, by us grown ups and authority figures. We have left them to their own devices (pun intended) as a kind of existential abandonment and have not demonstrated any true capacity to help them hold the complexity of their terrifying feelings. We are bubble wrapping them instead of sitting in the muck with them. We are ourselves lack the skills to regulate our own feelings and instead polarize. What signals are we giving teens that the grownups can help them? My teen sons love calling everyone "Boomer" and I hear it is a thumbing the nose at the grown ups who are to blame. They are both angry at the grown ups and also simultaneously need us to act like grown ups, I think. Not by bubble wrapping them but by sitting in the feelings, setting good boundaries and tending human connection as value.
I read "The Coddling" early last year. It opened my eyes surely, but also confirmed something I'd already seen happening in my classroom (I'm now a retired high school teacher). I saw before my eyes a new addiction emerge -- the addiction to smart phones, specifically social media ... especially Instagram and TikTok.
So Dr. Haidt et. al. have seen the correlation with overall teen mental health (i.e. depression, anxiety, self-harm).
I'd be most curious to see if the exponential rise in gender dysphoria correspondes with the mental health data. In 2005, one in 2000 adolescents identified as trans. Now I've seen figures as high as one in five. That's a 2,000 percent rise in gender dysphoria. 2000 percent!
I'd like to see data analysis on the meteoric climb in trans identity, which seems to correspond directly to Dr. Haidt's et. al. research on mental illness.
My 18yo college freshman girl (homeschooled k-12) told me in a phone conversation that she misses the times in her life when phones were not allowed, meaning that the adults required their absence. Her homeschool enrichment program wanted the kids to interact and prohibited them from campus, as did her summer camp where she was a counselor. She regards those times as peak experiences of friendship and interaction.
My two daughters were 12 and 15 in 2012. Thank goodness, my girls didn’t experience the worst of this, but it explains what was going on with many of their peers. Instinctively, I didn’t like cell phones for them at that age, but had no idea how harmful they could be. There was so much peer pressure on them to have iPhones. I resisted for awhile, but by their mid to late teens I had given in--I’m regretful about that. I hope that this information will go viral among today’s young parents and there will be a broad effort to change children’s access to these platforms, but I’m pessimistic about getting that genie back in its bottle.
Question: This data all clearly points to devastating rises in both absolute and relative terms for our youth and their mental health. Girls are generally most affected. How does this square with recent work published by Richard Reeves highlighting issues of boys and men, mental illness, and suicide, indicating that males are generally tracking worse than females at a population level. Would love to see an integration of these two lines of research if you're able/willing. Thanks so much for your amazing research.
While the smart phone is the key inflection point, it's what the smart phone enabled rather than the hardware that is the correlation. The platforms and apps available on a mobile phone are also available on tablets and laptops. It's the mobility of the device, and the ability to access platforms, apps, and forums forf communication in a very private manner - there are many ways around parental security controls and monitoring - combined with the global ease of being a dipshit online, which is not confined to the young or female.
I look forward to seeing the differences between Anglo and other areas (e.g., Western non-English-speaking, non-Western, etc.). I wonder whether one contributing factor (intertwined with content consumed on social media) is the historical make-up of Anglo vs. non-Anglo countries.
The “Reverse CBT” theory approach could explain why young adults have become more anxious over time. Some have argued that an increased emphasis on disadvantages, injustices, group disadvantages, etc., triggered this reversal. While those social ills are certainly not new, and while their presence has not increased, their visibility started paradoxically increasing around 2012.
But, could this trend be particularly pronounced in Anglo countries; and, specifically, those countries with a history of “original sins”?
In particular, Anglo countries are considered guilty of the ‘original sins’ (e.g., one versus many acts of colonialism, slavery, indigenous tribe erasure, or WWII in non-Anglo Germany). These single acts with salient victims and perpetrators might make it cognitively easier to see the world as a battle between good and evil. If one country became concerned with those issues, other countries with similar pasts might follow.
I wonder if one potential rise in girls’ anxiety could be cultural and roughly traced to differences between those who - either through availability cascades or their own experience - more readily identify social injustices (and group identity-based victims and perpetrators), and those who believe the world is far more complex.
If matters pertaining to these original sins (e.g., discrimination, social injustices) started receiving more attention in 2012, those who reside in Anglo countries (and Germany) might be particularly troubled by those injustices. They might also experience self-degradation if they are told they indirectly benefit from their perpetrator status.
Young women in such environments might be particularly concerned and inclined to do what they can to alleviate these significant social problems. Or, they might feel powerless to do anything.
In contrast, many other places (largely non-Anglo) have far more complex histories, where an observer cannot identify the good and the bad guy, as all have committed atrocities against the other (e.g., see Balkan region). There are no single original sins there, as its whole history is a series of atrocities.
As a result, it is more challenging to accept that the world is comprised of oppressors and the oppressed (and that our country or our group is uniquely malevolent). In these countries with messy pasts, young women might not feel the same emotional burden as their sisters in "original sin countries".
I am looking forward to the next analysis.
One other factor for adolescent girls is an increase in objectification. Female influencers have to post very revealing pictures of themselves on instagram, and the recent TV shows that feature middle/high school protagonists frequently contain X-rated content. These days, almost every female influencer has an onlyfans -- that's as objectifying as you can get. There's a good amount of literature that indicates that being exposed to objectifying content (mostly in the context of music videos) damages young girls' mental health and changes how they view themselves. Is this a key underlying factor in why girls' mental health is tanking? I think this definitely warrants investigation.
This certainly makes for a depressing read. But sometimes reality is ugly, and it's certainly a lot less ugly for us adults who read your post than it is for the teenagers caught up in this mental health crisis.
Note also that we most likely see the fallout from this development in politically highly charged areas, where, ironically, (neo-)liberal demands just make it worse for those teenagers concerned, and again, it is mainly girls - up to the point of sanctioning self-harm of teenage girls obviously struggling with their mental health and shutting down every criticism of it.
It's not that I doubt that the proliferation of smartphones and the subsequent increasing importance of social media as the main cause of and contributor to this crisis - but I also think that there are a number of prior changes in public discourse that make this the perfect storm.
I think it's clear that smartphones and social media in particular have a central role to play here. However, blaming this epidemic on "social media" feels too broad for me. What element of social media is at the heart of this rise in mental health issues?
Is it the algorithms and the way they rob people of any sense of agency over how to spend their time and focus their energy? A loss of agency could surely be a path towards depression and anxiety.
Is it a rising culture of navel gazing, self obsession and living under a constant public scrutiny? We see high rates of depression and anxiety when people acquire fame. Could social media be creating a culture where users are thrust into a micro-fame experience from a young age?
Is it the constant comparison and voyeurism which feeds into cycle of self loathing and low self esteem?
Could it be the "likes" and "follows" which quantifier our self worth and leave us craving external validation?
Is it simply the time suck which then interferes with our exploration of life, relationship and self?
Or, lastly, are young people so over saturated with Dopamine from the constant bombardment of media, that our Dopaminergic systems are completely dis regulated and we are all in a compromised state neurochemically?
There is a lot to unpack here> perhaps it's a bit of everything? Maybe all of these elements combine to make a poisonous cocktail. I for one look forward to seeing how the research delves into the specifics to unlock some much needed answers. Thank you to everyone doing the hard work.
In our holistic healing spa 1997 - 2010 we saw ten's of thousands of people overwhelmed and stressed by the loss of free time and the onslaught of information in digital form. We talked about modeling self-care for our benefit and the sake of our children. Kids were seeing adults untether from Nature and positive self-care choices. Oprah magazine grew thick with ads for pharmaceutical solutions. Celebrity spirituality promised joy for the price of weekend seminar enclosed in an auditorium.
In the mid-1800's there was a diagnosis for depression, irritability, anxiety and nervous tension. The illness was called neurasthenia; the cause was due to overexposure to manmade environments. The cure included sending the sufferer to a ranch out West where they could learn to rope horses. Walt Whitman, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Eakins were among those that took this "cure".
The multi-modal, multi-sensory, multi-dimensional richness of Nature cannot be imitated by narrow digital bandwidths.
Too much exposure to manmade digital structures layered on top of mandmade dwellings and vehicles does more harm to our minds, emotions and bodies than we realize.
For these very young people suffering today we need ways to help them experience their potential in being alive and connected to the natural world. Most would be amazed at the wisdom and insights hidden all around us. Guidance, direction and courage can be discovered in the silence of walking, breathing, and sensing the next turn on the path, the next crashing wave, in the shady greens of an aspiring tree, the glorious colors of a fallen leaf, drizzling rain and on and on.
There isn't a medication to cure the illness that comes from a "phone-based" childhood.
Don’t forget the worst outcome of all in highest numbers: death by suicide. And include gender breakdown of male/female ratio
What are we going to do about it? What are we going to do to protect our children and save ourselves? It is high time - as the new Chat GPT fad is pushed through our throat - we say no to a world ruled by angorithms.
Nagging suspicion here that it isn't the smartphone & parasocial connectivity per se but a conjunction with an emergent political culture that valourises guilt, shame and a righteousness that no ordinary person can really attain. These phenomena interweave and feed each other.
This would make the smartphone downstream of the 'real' problem, rather than its origin. So I fear that (rather as with America's focus on guns) we overlook the biggest problem.
Although I sense that somehow restricting smartphone use would help, just as making assault weapons harder to acquire would too, there's still a problem in western liberal culture.
Fascinating and important work! Convinced social media plays a huge role, but I'd add climate anxiety to the list of stressors on our young. What if, like most human phenomena, there's an evolutionary adaptive function to social contagion among girls and young women? So if they don't feel safe, they don't have kids and that regulates or decreases population in times of fear or scarcity. Think of the breasts on fertility symbols of our ancient ancestors, representing plenty and motherhood, and the fact that girls today are increasingly binding or removing their breasts. Are they like lemmings, instinctively so terrified of an uncertain future that they want no part of continuing the species?