It’s the new great depression. Since the rise of social media, depression and feelings of hopelessness have skyrocketed among teens.
Nearly half of teens say they agree with phrases like “I can’t do anything right,” “I do not enjoy life” and “My life is not useful” — roughly twice as many as did just a decade ago.
“These are staggering numbers, just enormous increases,” psychologist and generational expert Dr. Jean Twenge told The Post. “And parents are rightfully very concerned about their children’s mental health.”
The poll, conducted by the University of Michigan and featured in Twenge’s book “Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents — and What They Mean for America’s Future,” is just the latest startling revelation about youth mental health, as rates of teen anxiety and depression have grown.
The No. 1 cause, according to Twenge, is social media and screen time. In fact, rates of teen depressive symptoms have increased massively since the mass popularization of the smartphone in the early 2010s.
“There’s no question that is the primary cause of the increase in teen depression now,” Twenge said. “It’s by far the largest change in teens’ everyday lives over the past 10 to 12 years. Nothing else even comes close.”
The University of Michigan poll has been conducted annually since 1991, with 50,000 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades nationwide asked if they agree with the statements “I can’t do anything right,” “I do not enjoy life” and “My life is not useful.”
While the numbers held steady until about 2012, they began a sharp ascent the next year. Until then, fewer than 20% of students said they agreed with the phrase “I do not enjoy my life”; now half do.
That coincides with the rise of platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Musical.ly, which debuted in 2015 and became TikTok in the US two years later.
Today, teens can spend up to nine hours a day glued to screens — and half of them say they are online “almost constantly.”
“It’s a fundamental change in how teens spend their leisure time,” Twenge said. “If you put this all together — more time with screens, less time with friends face to face, less time sleeping — that’s a very poor recipe for mental health.”
Earlier this year, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that teen depression and suicide are on the rise in the social media age. And, while both boys and girls are struggling, it’s a trend that seems to be hitting girls harder.
Twenge says this could be because platforms like Instagram exacerbate girls’ tendency to compare themselves and vie for social status — now in the form of followers and likes.
And, although the pandemic uprooted many lives, Twenge said it inflamed existing issues within Gen Z (approximately, those born between 1997 and 2012).
“The idea that the adolescent mental health crisis is due [only] to the pandemic is false, but you certainly can’t rule out some acceleration on the trend,” she said.
Meanwhile, Gen Z is coming of age in an era of political polarization, cancel culture and global social unrest — sapping them of hope for the future and faith in their country. Four in 10 say America’s founding fathers are better described as villains than as heroes.
Beaten down by the economic climate, older Gen Zers are setting records for moving back in with their parents.
Although their generation might not have it worse than, say, “Boomers getting drafted into Vietnam,” Twenge pointed out, they feel like they do.
“Depression isn’t just about emotions. It’s about cognition, it’s about thinking, it’s about how you see the world,” she said. “A generation that is more depressed is more likely to be pessimistic, and they’re going to view ambiguous things as negative.”
That mindset can have dire consequences. Nearly a third of teen girls have seriously considered suicide, and youth self-harm hospitalizations have soared by 163% in the last 10 years. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death in young Americans.
And while Twenge says parents should stave off smartphones and social media for as long as possible, she believes more radical solutions are needed — like raising the minimum social media age to 16.
“We’re behind the curve in doing anything about this,” she said. “This is not just a problem of individual families or individual teens. This is a group level problem.”