The Declining Mental Health of Millennials: Is Depression the New Normal?
What is at the root of the generational increase in mental illness among adolescents?
By Larkin Callaghan
Published November 7, 2012
It is a familiar sight to see a group of teens bent over phones or gaming devices, checking in, tagging each other, posting pictures and commenting, and waiting impatiently for all their cyber friends to ‘like’ their work, or re-tweet their location, or post an accompanying video.
Teenagers today are some of the most enthusiastic users of social media sites like Facebook, and as an age group their Internet use is near universal—a full 95 percent of teens are now online.
This trend has provoked anxiety, raising a range of concerns, from sex predators to promoting a sedentary lifestyle. Less noticed has been the effects of heavy media use on mental health.
But just as teen internet use has risen in recent years, teen depression and psychopathology has risen five-fold since the early part of the 20th century.
This relationship has recently been of concern to psychologists and psychiatric epidemiologists. Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has been one of the most outspoken in her field on linking these two trends.
As she says in her recent book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, rising rates of depression are partly the result of a culture that promotes the narcissism pulsing through social media usage.
Americans—especially teenagers—now rely so much on external and immediate gratification, social status and image, and the superficial gain they get from social media that they are forgoing values that contribute to a sound internal life—like strong communities built more on shared goals than on individual success, and the pursuit of activities that provide internal satisfaction, Dr. Twenge says.
Eight percent of 12-17 year-olds in the United States experienced at least one major depressive disorder in the past year. While some have argued that this is simply the result of greater recognition and diagnosis of the illness than in the past, Dr. Twenge and others say it owes to the rise in materialism and narcissism in what she has termed “Generation Me.”
Teens who have grown up in today’s social media environment know no other reality than the one in which anyone in their ‘network’ has a lens into their life and the chance to judge every act of it. 80 percent of teens active online participate in social networking sites, according to a Pew Research Center study from 2011. For this reason, they get the message that “extrinsic” values like how people perceive—virtually or in reality—is of greater importance than “intrinsic” values like their personal goals and the development of a unique self.
Dr. Twenge has elaborated on this in her blog at Psychology Today, saying that culturally, we have lost rites of passage that demarcate adulthood, emphasize individual fame for fame’s sake as opposed to real accomplishment, over-indulge our children from early developmental stages, and support and even laud self-promotion at the expense of others.
Additionally, Dr. Twenge and colleagues have indicated in their research that this generation of teens and young adults are less civic-minded, care less about social and political issues, are less interested in working towards solutions to environmental concerns, and have less empathy or interest in social justice.
Dr. Twenge’s theory is backed up by parallel psychological research, which has suggested that feeling one’s fate is shaped by external forces rather than one’s own efforts—what is known as ‘locus of control’—is more likely to cause depression and anxiety than feeling an internal drive and control over one’s future.
“Externality,” a measure of one’s perception of the influence of external forces over one’s life versus the influence of internal motivation and action, can be used to determine to what extent someone takes responsibility for their own actions and how accurately one identifies how their own behavior leads to certain outcomes.
High externality also indicates little conviction in one’s ability to behave in a specific way, something known as self-efficacy.
This could mean that those who focus on more materialistic and superficial lavishing of attention are in part doing so because they lack the self-esteem and efficacy to think that they can achieve something more significant and tangible.
This is in line with Dr. Twenge’s hypotheses. She argues that narcissism and the rising but inaccurate levels of self-evaluation can ultimately lead to deeper disappointment in one’s self and depression from alienation caused by increased self-involvement.
There has been a marked increase since 1960 in the number of people who feel this way—that external elements control their lives and future, according to a 2004 epidemiological study that Dr. Twenge and her colleagues conducted.
These feelings are associated not only with depression but also ineffective stress management, feelings of helplessness, and decreased self-control. They are also associated with higher levels of cynicism and self-serving bias.
Two studies of Dr. Twenge’s are illustrative of the fact that this rise in teen depression is indeed both significant and new.
One is a recent meta-analysis she and other researchers conducted, which explored self-reported feelings of depression and sadness in college and high school students from the 1930s to the present.
Even though self-reporting is often questioned, studies have shown that self-reported feelings of depression and compromised mental health tend to be accurate in children and adolescents—perhaps even more so than in adults— and even complement diagnostic criterion for mental illness.
Five times as many teens and young adults now score above cutoffs meeting psychopathology criteria as they did in the earlier through mid 20th century, according to Dr. Twenge’s analysis.
Population level results indicate the underlying shift has societal causes and is not merely the result of genetic predisposition to mental illness or an individual’s circumstances.
The second study took a closer look at teen depression in the past twenty years. Dr. Twenge noted that while major depressive disorder and suicide appear to have slightly receded since the early 1990s—likely a result of an increase in anti-depressant medications—current prevalence remains higher today than before the 1990s and psychosomatic complaints have continued to increase, such as feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious.
Other research has found a relationship between external motivators and neurological patterns.
One study revealed that teens suffering from depression had diminished responses to rewarding stimuli, such as genuine assurance of a job well done, a friendly affirmation from a friend, or small monetary compensations for the actual completion of tasks. Follow-up research showed that 20 year-olds who experienced depression as teens still have muted reward responses, indicating that help needs to be offered as early as possible.
Teen depression of course can have significant consequences, such as the increased likelihood of substance use and abuse, social withdrawal, strained relationships with family and friends, and in the worst cases, suicide.
To be sure, Twenge’s findings are controversial, and some continue to insist that there is no increase in depression or psychopathology in teens. But, in the opinion of Dr. Twenge, to prevent further increases in these depression statistics, teens need to move from constant self-promotion to feeling gratification from real achievement, and to reward feelings deriving from accomplishment as opposed to blindly seeking praise and compliment.
In today’s ubiquitous social media environment, that may be difficult to do, and the results slow to come.
Edited by Elaine Meyer. Additional research by Josh Brooks.