Specifically, something is undermining young people’s mental health, especially girls.
In her paper, Twenge looks at four studies covering 7 million people, ranging from teens to adults in the US. Among her findings: high school students in the 2010s were twice as likely to see a professional for mental health issues than those in the 1980s; more teens struggled to remember things in 2010-2012 compared to the earlier period; and 73% more reported trouble sleeping compared to their peers in the 1980s. These so-called “somatic” or “of-the-body” symptoms strongly predict depression.
“It indicates a lot of suffering,” Twenge told Quartz.
It’s not just high school students. College students also feel more overwhelmed; student health centers are in higher demand for bad breakups or mediocre grades, issues that previously did not drive college kids to seek professional help. While the number of kids who reported feeling depressed spiked in the 1980s and 1990s, it started to fall after 2008. It has started rising again:
Kids are being diagnosed with higher levels of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and everyone aged 6-18 is seeking more mental health services, and more medication.
The trend is not a uniquely American phenomenon: In the UK, the number of teenagers (15-16) with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s and a recent survey found British 15-year-olds were among the least happy teenagers in the world (those in Poland and Macedonia were the only ones who were more unhappy).
“We would like to think of history as progress, but if progress is measured in the mental health and happiness of young people, then we have been going backward at least since the early 1950s,” Peter Gray, a psychologist and professor at Boston College, wrote in Psychology Today.
Researchers have a raft of explanations for why kids are so stressed out, from a breakdown in family and community relationships, to the rise of technology and increased academic stakes and competition. Inequality is rising and poverty is debilitating.
Twenge has observed a notable shift away from internal, or intrinsic goals, which one can control, toward extrinsic ones, which are set by the world, and which are increasingly unforgiving.
Gray has another theory: kids aren’t learning critical life-coping skills because they never get to play anymore.
“Children today are less free than they have ever been,” he told Quartz. And that lack of freedom has exacted a dramatic toll, he says.
“My hypothesis is that the generational increases in externality, extrinsic goals, anxiety, and depression are all caused largely by the decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time and weight given to schooling,” he wrote. [Continue reading…]