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Mental Health Woes Are Rising in Young Americans -- Is Social Media to Blame?

By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, March 14, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Young Americans may be more vulnerable to depression, distress and suicidal thoughts or attempts than their parents' generation, and social media might be fueling that troubling trend.

So claims a review of a decade's worth of data on roughly 200,000 teens between the ages of 12 and 17, and 400,000 young adults over 18.

Investigators found that beginning in the mid-2000s, those under the age of 26 started reporting a huge rise in symptoms related to all three mental health problems. The spikes ranged from about 55 to 70 percent. No such jump was seen among adults over the age of 26.

"Other studies had also documented an increase in mental health issues among adolescents, but it was unclear whether this was a shift among people of all ages or a generational shift," explained study author Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

The latest findings suggest a generational shift is indeed underway. These young adults "are experiencing mental health issues at a much higher rate than millennials were and are, even after accounting for year and age," Twenge said. Millennials are those born between 1981 and 1996.

Why? "These increases in behaviors," Twenge said, "cannot be explained by [more] awareness or acknowledgement."

Instead, Twenge thinks the likely culprit is the explosive rise of social media over the past 10 years. The result, she said, is that "the way teens and young adults spend their leisure time has fundamentally changed."

They "spend less time with their friends in person, and less time sleeping, and more time on digital media," Twenge noted. "The decline in sleep time may be especially important, as not getting enough sleep is a major risk factor for depression and suicidal thoughts."

What's more, digital media is "something that happens to them every day, for hours at a time," she said. "So, it makes sense it would have the largest impact on their mental health."

And that impact hasn't been good.

The analysis found that while major depressive symptoms had affected about 8 percent of survey respondents under 26 back in 2011, that figure had risen to 13 percent by 2017, representing an increase of roughly 60 percent. Young girls appeared to be particularly vulnerable, with indications that major clinical depression was affecting about 1 in 5 teen girls in 2017.

Similarly, indicators of serious psychological distress (such as anxiety and feelings of hopelessness) skyrocketed by more than 70 percent among those aged 18 to 25. During the same time frame, a whopping 55 percent rise was seen in suicidal thoughts among those between the ages of 22 and 23, while actual suicide attempts doubled.

The findings were published in the March 14 issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Shari Jager-Hyman is a research associate with the Center for the Prevention of Suicide at the University of Pennsylvania, and was not involved with the study. She said the findings "could have important implications," and agreed that changing attitudes towards mental health alone would not explain the whole story.

But certain aspects of the global rise of a new digital "town square" might, Jager-Hyman suggested. For example, these teens and young adults are the first to have to deal with the advent of "cyberbullying and social comparison facilitated by social media, both of which are associated with negative psychological outcomes," she said.

"It is most likely that these findings are not attributable to any single factor," Jager-Hyman said. "But it is certainly possible that increased exposure to social/digital media and decreased time engaging in face-to-face interactions may contribute to greater increases in psychological distress in younger people."

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health offers more information on young people and depression.

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