Are today’s teenagers really more miserable than ever?
It sure looks like it.
By all indications, the incidence of depression and anxiety in all children has increased significantly. In December, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned the country was facing a youth mental health crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic. This followed the declaration of a national mental health emergency by the nation’s leading experts on pediatric health, especially among the most vulnerable – LGBTQ children, children with disabilities, black, brown and Indigenous children and children involved in child protection or juvenile justice systems.
This week, a psychologist suggested in a Washington Post essay that college girls are going through the toughest time of all, especially since the pandemic.
“Possible causes abound,” wrote Jelena Kecmanovic, founding director of the Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute. “Overparenting, screens and social media, fierce academic and athletic competition, political acrimony, social injustice, climate concerns, gun violence and virtual learning, among others.”
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that ER visits resulting from suspected suicide attempts by girls ages 12 to 17 jumped 26% in 2020 and more than 50% in 2021 compared to to 2019. The rate of suspected suicide attempts among boys in this age group has remained stable.
It was horrible to read, especially considering I’m raising my 12-year-old niece, who is about to enter seventh grade. Until recently, I had felt relaxed enough to be able to handle the ups and downs of her teenage and teenage years. Maybe it’s because when my daughter, now about to turn 30, was in college, the subject of teenage tribulations was very much in vogue.
In 2002, Rosalind Wiseman’s “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World” offered help to parents whose teenage daughters were subjected to destructive social patterns. The best-selling book inspired the 2004 hit movie “Mean Girls.”
Eight years earlier, Mary Pipher’s groundbreaking 1994 book, “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls”, posited that girls enter a “social and developmental Bermuda triangle”, in which they “lose their resilience and their optimism and become less curious and less inquisitive”. inclined to take risks. They become “more deferential, self-critical and depressed. They report great dissatisfaction with their own bodies.
It’s hard to overstate the effect “Reviving Ophelia” has had on culture. This sparked interest in girl-only education, on the theory that, far from boys and the pressure to conform to feminine ideals, girls could be themselves. (This also led to a backlash: what about the boys?)
In an updated 2019 edition, Pipher writes that the biggest changes in adolescence have been brought about by technology.
“Currently,” she writes, “online activities have impaired emotional growth, social behavior, nervous system, body chemistry, and attention span in adolescents. We may long for the day smartphones were invented, but we can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that internal company documents showed the company now known as Meta, Instagram’s parent company, was aware that its product was often psychologically harmful to teenage girls.
“We’re making body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls,” Facebook researchers found in 2019, according to the Journal. “Teenagers blame Instagram for rising rates of anxiety and depression. This reaction was spontaneous and consistent across all groups,” the company’s message board said in 2020.
When my niece first moved in with me, she was 8 years old and I felt ready to guide her through the choppy waters of adolescence into adulthood.
But technology and social media have thrown me a curveball. Like many of her peers, she is obsessed with screens. I’ve tried to exercise as much parental control over her iPad usage as possible, but I can’t monitor her every keystroke or attempt (along with her friends) to twerk for the camera.
And I’m afraid his ever-growing brain is simply unable to absorb the lessons I’m trying to teach him about internet safety. I doubt I’m the only parent who felt defeated by their child’s inability to truly understand that the cute 13-year-old Australian boy who liked her TikTok might just be a 50-year-old pedophile.
The college years are always tough, and especially so for girls, who deal with the onset of body changes that aren’t always welcome – budding breasts and especially menstrual cycles. It is a time when self-awareness is heightened to pain.
Last year, when I was dropping my niece off at school, I was struck by how many girls wore oversized sweaters and baggy pants, even in hot weather.
And I was also struck by the large number of children staring at iPhone screens while walking. Recently, I read the story of a high school teacher who loved the sound of teenage chatter and flirtation in the hallways as students moved between classrooms. Now the hallways have fallen silent and everyone is looking at their phones.
My niece desperately needs an iPhone – just as desperate, in fact, as I am that she doesn’t have one. I am a firm believer in the “Wait Until 8th” movement, which advocates keeping smartphones out of reach of children until at least eighth grade. Because they don’t need it.
“These devices are rapidly changing children’s childhoods,” Pipher writes. “Playing outside, hanging out with friends, reading books, and spending time with family happens a lot less to make room for hours of Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube catching up.”
Do not mistake yourself. We need to communicate about, say, school pick-up times, so I bought my niece a custom-made phone for tweens. It allows him to make and receive calls, send text messages and take photos. But that’s all. No apps.
Will she grow up to be a happy, healthy adult because I’m so mean to iPhones?
Sure. That’s what I tell him, and I hope it’s true.