Over the last decade, we have seen a drastic rise in mental health problems, especially amongst teens. This has become apparent not just in how frequently we are talking about things like depression and anxiety, but also by the rise in actions such as suicide that are measurable indicators.
This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Dr. Jean Twenge, an author and Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, to discuss why this rise is occurring and what we can do to protect our teens.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Recent CDC data has found that nearly one out of three teenage girls seriously considered suicide in 2021. That’s one out of three. Well, what’s going on, and how can we address it?
Today we’re joined by a psychologist and researcher, Dr. Jean Twenge, who’s been sounding the alarm about teen mental health for years. She’s a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and has authored countless scientific publications and several books based on her research into generational change. This includes her newest book out this month entitled, “Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents–and What They Mean for America’s Future.”
Jean Twenge, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
JEAN TWENGE: Thank you.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Give us some data, if you would, and some statistics. What prompted you to be sounding this alarm about teen mental health? Because this is not a problem that emerged during COVID, right, I mean, you’ve been watching it for years?
JEAN TWENGE: Exactly. Yeah. And I’ve been doing this work on generational differences for a long time, and I get used to seeing changes that were big but they take a decade or two to get there. But in these big national surveys of teens that I work with, around 2012-2013 more and more teens started to say that they felt left out, that they felt lonely, that they felt like they couldn’t do anything right, that they didn’t enjoy life.
So these are classic symptoms of loneliness and depression, and those increases just kept going year, after year, after year. So, for example, between 2011 and 2019, so even before the pandemic, in another big survey clinical-level depression that really requires treatment, doubled over that time. So across the board pretty much every indicator of mental health for teens started to get worse after 2011 or 2012 and kept getting worse, and worse, and worse year after year.
So that also includes behaviors like self-harm and suicide that can’t be explained away by something like, oh, maybe they’re just more willing to admit to their problems. These are behaviors that we can objectively measure.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So this problem is worse then? Are you seeing that it’s worse among teen girls?
JEAN TWENGE: Yeah, for the most part, if you look at those mental health trends, those increases in mental health issues have been more pronounced for teen girls than for teen boys over this time.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right, but we’re seeing increased rates in suicide for young men as well, though, right? I mean they don’t get a pass on this.
JEAN TWENGE: Yeah, exactly, exactly. So, yeah, suicide and depression have also increased among teen boys and young men as well. It’s just the increases for teen girls and young women had been larger.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk about what you think is causing this increase in depression, mental health issues, among our younger people because this is just alarming.
JEAN TWENGE: It’s very, very concerning. So when I first started seeing these increases, I had absolutely no idea what might be causing them. It was very clear it wasn’t economic issues because the US economy was improving quite a bit between 2011 and 2019, for example. So that left other things, and I was trying to think of something that happened around that time that then reverberated throughout the decade.
Then I realized from some other polling data, the end of 2012 was the first time that the majority of Americans owned a smartphone. It’s also around the time that social media use among teens moved from relatively optional to something that almost all teens, like 85% or so, we’re doing every single day. So the same time period when the way teens spent their time outside of school fundamentally shifted. They started spending a lot more time online, and a lot less time with each other face to face.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Give us some details about why this is the case because I think for some of us that are older, I mean, Facebook is still in many ways a way to swap pictures of our kids or grandkids. But you’re not necessarily talking about Facebook, right? There are a lot of social media applications that the kids are on that parents may not even really realize what’s going on there.
JEAN TWENGE: Yeah, exactly, so I mean that’s another thing. You have to think about in terms of that time sequence. Instagram, for example, was bought by Facebook in 2012, so that’s when it really became much more popular. And so Instagram, particularly for girls and young women, is a really problematic platform because, in essence, what people do is post pictures of themselves and invite others to comment on the pictures. And usually they’re taking pictures of their bodies, and for girls, in particular, this is not a great situation.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So that’s Instagram, mostly pictures. What about some of the other ones that we hear about?
JEAN TWENGE: So Tik Tok is relatively new to the game. It really started to become very popular in 2020. So what’s interesting about Tik Tok is it has this very, very sticky algorithm. So you don’t choose what you see. The app decides what to show you next based on what you have watched and how long you have watched it. So it will feed you what it thinks you want, and so a lot of people will have the experience on Tik Tok of saying, oh, I meant to spend 20 minutes and I spent two hours, People also end up down wormholes. So teens will say, well, you know, I was all sad so I started watching things from other people who were sad, and then before long I was seeing things on self-harm. The same thing happens with body image on both Tik Tok and in Instagram. I started to search for things on dieting, and then I ended up with all this content about anorexia.
Think about the effects of social media. There’s so many ways it can have a negative effect on mental health. So cyberbullying is an obvious one. The algorithms that keep kids and teens on these apps is another because if you end up spending five hours a day on social media, then you have to ask, well, what are you not doing? You’re probably not sleeping enough. You’re probably not interacting with your friends and family face to face enough. You’re not spending time on things that we know are more beneficial for mental health. And if you’re listening to this thinking, well, then why are those algorithms there? You know what’s the point of that? Because that’s how the companies make more money. The longer people spend on the app, the more money they make.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So it sounds like it’s not just the content, but it’s also the time that it steals away from other important things. Is there an amount of time that you think is okay, or do you think parents especially of middle schoolers, high schoolers should just stay away from it altogether?
JEAN TWENGE: I’ve come to believe based on what we know about the links between social media use and depression that we should have more regulation in this area and that the minimum age for having social media should be raised to 16. At the moment, it is 13. Yet even that is not enforced. It’s very routine for 10-year-olds to have a Tik Tok account, in particular, and also be on Instagram. I mean, it is really pervasive. So you have to have the age minimum raised, and it has to be enforced. We need age verification. Right now, kids can go on and you don’t need parental permission. You don’t need to show an ID. You don’t have to prove your age in any verifiable way. You just check a box or lie about your birthday, so that’s why there are so many children, not even teens, on these apps. These apps aren’t designed for children, and they’re not even designed for teens. They’re designed for adults.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You know, speaking of proving what age you are, I mean, most of our social media apps don’t even try to prove that the people that are interacting are people. There are a lot of bots that get in there and mix it up, too, and that creates some problems.
JEAN TWENGE: It does, absolutely. The good news is there are more and more companies that can do age verification online through various strategies so we can solve this problem.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s talk about that. So a parent is like you’re not getting on social media until you’re 16. Give us some strategies. Do you have some that you can advise parents who are going to tackle this, perhaps even take this away from their kids, are there some ways of dealing with that, that you think would be wise?
JEAN TWENGE: Just for context, I have three kids myself. They are 16, 13, and 11. So my first piece of advice is put off getting your kids a smartphone for as long as possible. My 16-year-old only got her first smartphone a month ago, so she had a flip phone before that. My 13-year-old has a gab phone, so that you can call, and text, and take pictures, and that’s it. There’s no internet access, and there’s no way to download apps, and there’s no games. So then she can text her friends, she can call us, but there’s not even a capability of doing any kind of work around to be able to download social media. And so with my 16-year-old, she actually does fit what I’ve suggested for the age limit, but we’ve had long conversations about this that there are safer ways for her to communicate with her friends. And then there’s always a fit for the particular kid and that social media is probably not the best idea for her.
So there’s parental controls on Android phones and iPhones these days that are pretty good. And so her phone, her new smartphone, she cannot download apps without a passcode from myself or my husband. So that means that she can’t download social media without that passcode. So she has a great group of friends, and they communicate through text instead through social media.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So are you finding that these restrictions are somewhat contagious to some of your children’s friends? I mean are you empowering other parents to put their foot down here?
JEAN TWENGE: I mean I don’t know if I can personally take any credit with it, but, certainly, I think these things are worth discussing. And you make an excellent point that we do need more group-level solutions because this is the issue, right? This is why I think we need more regulation, why we need to raise the minimum age. Because think about it, if no one, no kid in middle school, is allowed to have social media, then the pressure to have it goes away. This is a group problem, and we’re trying to solve it with individual solutions, like my kid’s not going to have it. So it’s much easier and better, especially with kids, especially with teenagers, if nobody has it. Then it’s just off the table.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Getting back to the root problem, which, of course, though, is what social media seems to be producing, and that’s this depression and a lack of hope in people’s lives. What kind of response can we have, as adults who may have some teenagers and young teens in our lives?
JEAN TWENGE: There’s one relatively simple, very straightforward thing that all of us can do. No phones, or devices, in our bedrooms overnight. And that’s not just for our kids. That’s for everybody that we know from all kinds of studies in sleep labs that people do not sleep as well if that phone is within arm’s reach. Almost everybody has their phone within arm’s reach. It’s become the norm, but that’s a very, very bad idea for sleep health. And, usually, when I talk to people about this, the next thing I get is, yeah, but I have to have my phone in my room overnight because it’s my alarm clock to which I say I have some advice for you, “Buy an alarm clock.”
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We’re just about out of time. Talk to us a little bit about where listeners can go to follow all of your good work because you’ve got a lot of it, and, of course, get a copy of your newest book. And the name of that, again, is “Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents–and What They Mean for America’s Future.”
JEAN TWENGE: Yes. So in this book, part of what it’s about is looking at the impact of technology across all of the generations. And technology, of course, isn’t just smartphones and social media. There’s a lot of amazing things that technology has done for us. We just have to find the right balance to use the technology and still be human and happy and have time with our families. So my website is JeanTwenge.com. And that has all my books and a bunch of frequently asked questions, and a few things about my research and speaking engagements and all that good stuff.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Dr. Jean Twenge, thank you for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.