Many measures of adolescent mental health began to deteriorate sometime around 2009. So is the number of American high school students who say they feel constantly sad or hopeless. It also applies to reported loneliness. And it applies to emergency room visits for self-harm in Americans ages 10 to 19.
This timing is suspicious because internet use among young people also started to increase during the same period. Apple started selling the iPhone in 2007. Facebook opened itself to the public in late 2006, and by 2009 a third of Americans were using it.
Last month, The Times began publishing a series on adolescent mental health, and the latest piece — aimed at pediatricians struggling to help — has just been published.
The author of the series is Matt Richtel, who has spent more than a year interviewing adolescents, their relatives and their friends. In my recent conversations with Matt about his coverage, he has gone out of his way to highlight the uncertainty about the specific causes of the crisis, including the role social media plays.
“If you look at specific research on the role of social media influencing young people, it’s quite contradictory,” he said. Some studies find that adolescents who use social media a lot are more likely to feel sad or depressed, while others find little or no effect. There is no evidence, for example, that TikTok or the social media’s “Like” button is causing the mental health crisis.
But Matt also thinks some of these scary questions of cause and effect are secondary. What seems undeniable, he emphasizes, is that the increasing use of digital technology has changed the daily rhythms of life.
It has resulted in adolescents spending less time on personal activities, such as dating, hanging out with friends, and going to church. The use of technology has also contributed to a decrease in exercise and sleep. The proportion of high school students who slept at least eight hours a night fell by 30 percent between 2007 and 2019, notes Derek Thompson of The Atlantic.
The use of technology is not the only cause of these trends. Modern parenting strategies also play a role. But digital technology — be it social media, video games, text messaging or other online activity — plays a big role, many experts say.
“If you’re not getting enough rest outside and not getting enough sleep — and you can almost quit on too little sleep — every human being is challenged,” Matt said. “When you put the adolescent brain in that equation, you’re talking about someone who is really, really challenged to feel content and at peace and happy with the world around them.”
The role of a specific social media platform or behavior may remain unknown, but the bigger story about American adolescents and their emotional struggles is less mysterious.
“They have too much screen time, they don’t sleep and they are on the phone all the time,” Dr. Melissa Dennison, a pediatrician in central Kentucky who sees many unhappy adolescents, told Matt. Dennison regularly encourages her patients to take walks outside or to church.
It’s true that the decline in personal interactions has had a few silver linings. Young people today are less likely to use tobacco, drink alcohol or become pregnant. But the net effect of less socializing is negative. Most people struggle when they don’t spend time in the company of others.
The Covid-19 pandemic has, of course, exacerbated isolation, loneliness and depression. In December, the US Surgeon General warned of a “devastating” mental health crisis among American youth.
I think Covid is a particularly relevant comparison. In the past more than two years, millions of American parents have shown intense concern for their children by protecting them from Covid. Fortunately, for the vast majority of children, Covid is mild and does not cause serious illness or long-lasting symptoms. A sign of this: young children, who are not yet eligible for vaccination, are on average considerably less at risk than vaccinated people over 65.
Still, I understand why so many parents remain anxious. Covid is new and scary. It takes advantage of the fierce protective instincts of parents.
What makes less sense to me is why our society has done so little to protect children from the apparent harm of ubiquitous digital media. They are almost certainly greater for most children than the threat of Covid.
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The Tony Awards
Yesterday the Tony Awards announced the nominees. The ceremony will be hosted by Ariana DeBose, who won an Academy Award this year for “West Side Story.”
Most nominated: ‘A Strange Loop’, a Pulitzer-winning musical about an aspiring playwright, written by Michael R. Jackson. The show earned 11 nominations, including Best Musical. Good luck finding tickets.
Prize for everyone! Of the 34 shows that were eligible for nominations, 29 got at least one nod, including the critically scorned “Diana.”
Okay, not everyone: It’s not an actual award ceremony unless someone is disapproved. “Pass Over”, a well-reviewed play by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, was excluded. So did married couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, who are working on a popular revival of “Plaza Suite.” Daniel Craig was not nominated for his role in ‘Macbeth’, although his co-star, Ruth Negga, did.
How can I watch? The show, scheduled for June 12 at Radio City Music Hall, will feature two parts: a one-hour awards ceremony streamed on Paramount+, followed by a three-hour, performance-intensive show broadcast on CBS.