Teenagers and young adults are in the middle of a unique mental crisis, a new study suggests on Thursday. It found that the rate of depressive episodes and serious mental disorders has increased dramatically among these age groups over the past few years, while they hardly occurred or even decreased for older age groups.
Lead writer Jean Twenge, a 47-year-old professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has spent much of his career studying attitudes and beliefs of younger generations. By 2017, Twenge published a pop-science book in which she expressed her central argument that teenagers and young adults who are older are particularly lonely and relaxed, thanks in part to the growing range of social media and devices like smartphones. Her book is titled iGen: Why today's super-connected children grow up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy, and totally unprepared for adulthood.
Twens book and work had had their opponents, arguing that her theory is supported by cherry-picked and weak evidence, or that other factors apart from smartphones may be the real culprit behind a legitimate increase in teenage depression. A new study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and written by Twenge and others, seems to be prepared to oppose at least some of these criticisms.
Twenge and her team looked at data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative survey of Americans lifestyle habits. Overall, they saw more than 600,000 Americans over different age groups who took the survey from 2005 to 2017.
Between those years, they tracked the extent of reported episodes of major depression and severe mental distress, measured by how people responded to questions such as ever felt "so sad or depressed that nothing could appeal to them". They also looked at the number of suicide-related outcomes, such as how often people thought about suicide, had plans to do it and actually tried it.
For almost all age groups over the age of 18, the severity of anxiety over the last month increased between 2008 and 2017 (2008 was the first year in which the disadvantages of adults are tracked). But this upswing was much more dramatic among young adults.
In 2008, about 5 percent of adults experienced between 30 and 34 years of serious distress, while 6.5 percent of the same group said the same 2017 33 percent hope. Meanwhile, over 8 percent of 20 and 21 year olds experienced a disadvantage in 2008, compared with 14.4 percent in 2017 – a 78 percent relative increase.
A similar pattern was true for episodes of major depression and suicide-related results: Teenagers and young adults had higher degrees of depression in 2017 than they did a decade earlier, while the rate of depression for most age groups over 30 was actually lower in 2017 compared to with 2009 (pensioners were the exception).  Younger people tend to experience depression and other mood problems more than older people. But the results indicate that younger people today handle more depression and distress than younger people were ten years ago. And although some of this melancholy may be due to cultural factors that affect everyone to an extent, it is the youngest most difficult.
The study cannot give any direct evidence of what causes this difference, which is a common criticism of Twenge's work. But, according to Twenge, it seems to exclude that factors such as the major recession are particularly relevant.
"If economic causes were to be blamed, it is not so much meaningful that depression would peak in 2017 when unemployment was on record lows and lower during the recession when unemployment was high," she told Gizmodo. "If economic factors were also responsible, you would also expect the increase to be greatest among unemployed adults directly affected by changes in the labor market. Instead, it is the youngest showing the greatest increases in depression, including 12 to 17 year olds. which saves the direct effects of anxiety about supporting a family during poor economic times. "
Twenge and her co-authors argue that since this rise of depression began in 2012, smartphones around time began to become a universal accessory, the and similar entities must play a major role. They can make it even more difficult for teenagers and young people to sleep. Lack of sleep is a well-known driver of poorer mental health – or limits the amount of face to face social interaction that people get with their friends and family. And while the same effects can also happen with thousands of years and older generations, the authors say they would be more influential for people in their formative years.
Regardless of exact reasons, it is known that depressed and suicidal teenagers are more likely to suffer as adults, so this major wave of depression among young people can cause ripples year or even decades along the way. And since there is no end to the upswing, at least right now, it can get even worse.
Twenge discounts not the value of technology, even to help people stay mentally healthy, but she said there should be more work to understand how these devices can harm young people and how to better prevent that injury. In the near future she said that we all, but especially teenagers, could probably leave our phones out of the bedroom, turn off our units one hour before bed and limit our screen time outside of work or school to two hours a day or less.
If you or someone you know has a crisis, call the National Suicide Supply Line at 800-273-8255, or write Crisis Text Line at 741-741.