Teen Mental Health: The Age of Anxiety
By Erica Zelfand

It seems like every generation, upon hitting parenthood, can relate to this line from musical theater:

Kids!

What’s the matter with kids today?

Why can’t they be like we were,

Perfect in every way?

While the standards of respect and discipline do indeed change with each generation, today’s parents find themselves worried about a completely different set of issues: Today’s children, teens, and young adults have more mental illness than did any generation before them. Young people today are sicker, more anxious, and more depressed than their parents’ generation.

What’s the problem?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in seven adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 has a mental disorder, with anxiety being the most common condition. In the United States, almost one-third of teens ages 13-18 have an anxiety disorder.

The statistics on depression, self harm, and suicide aren’t much better. A 2023 report shows that one in three teenage girls has considered suicide, and one in five LGBQ+ students had attempted it.

What caused the spike in mental illness among young Americans? The most obvious culprit is the Covid-19 pandemic, which interrupted normal life and imposed isolation upon children during critical windows of their psychological, intellectual, and social development.

While the pandemic undoubtedly harmed the mental health of children and teens, the mental health crisis existed well before Covid. Consider these statistics:

  • Rates of depression and anxiety in the USA were fairly stable in the 2000’s, but spiked more than 50% between the years 2010 and 2019.
  • The suicide rate among adolescents ages 10 to 19 rose by 48% between 2010 and 2019
  • The suicide rate among girls ages 10 to 14 rose a shocking 131% between 2010 and 2019.
  • After 2012, reading and math scores began declining among US students for the first time in a long time.
  • Those in Generation Z (those born after 1996) are more shy, less likely to date, and more likely to live with their parents. They were also less likely to have had a job in their teen years than previous generations.
  • Rates of self-harm (behaviors like cutting and self mutilation) also started increasing around 2010, especially among girls, whereas boys saw a spike in suicidality.
  • Since 2010, people have been exercising less, spending less time with friends, sleeping less, and gaining weight.

Looking at the above statistics, it’s clear that something started going terribly wrong around the year 2010. 

What happened in 2010?

According to the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the decline in young people’s mental health correlated with an explosion of tech and social media. In 2009, Facebook introduced the “like” button on its platform. In 2010, Apple released the new iPhone 4, the first model to have a front-facing camera for selfies. Instagram also launched in 2010.

Fast forward to today: Over half of US teens spend more than 4 hours per day, every day, on social media. The data show that today’s teens spend more time stroking their devices than they spend on homework, chores, time with friends, or other important activities for their age group. The survey reports that teenage girls spend a daily average of 5.3 hours on social media, about one hour more than their male classmates (who spend an average of 4.4 hours per day). YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram were the most popular apps.

As Haidt explains in his book The Anxious Generation:

The mass migration of childhood into the virtual world has disrupted social and neurological development.

Haidt’s concerns are echoed in a 2023 study, which found a correlation between screen time and suicidal behaviors in kids ages 9 to 11 got. (My colleague Dr. Georgiana Cullen-Kerney explains the findings of this study in this article.) A Korean study of over 40,000 kids also found that using a smartphone for more than four hours per day was strongly associated with alcohol consumption, increased stress perception, and suicidal ideation.

Smartphone time doesn’t just hurt kids: An Australian study found that excessive smartphone use leads to depression, anxiety, stress, and poor sleep in adults, too.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all that sitting around in front of a screen has had impacts on our physical health, too. According to the WHO, “The prevalence of overweight (including obesity) among children and adolescents aged 5–19 has risen dramatically from just 8% in 1990 to 20% in 2022.” Smartphone use is also associated with nearsightedness, neck pain, and reductions in sleep quality and quantity.

Devices are making us depressed, anxious, addicted, suicidal, nearsighted, weak-necked, and obese. But at least they make us smarter with all their educational content, right?

Not so fast.

Derek Thompson explores the matter in his 2023 article, which is not-so-subtly titled “It Sure Looks Like Phones Are Making Students Dumber: Test scores have been falling for years—even before the pandemic.” In the article, Thompson reviews various studies, all of which support the claim that “…students who spend more time staring at their phone do worse in school, distract other students around them, and feel worse about their life.”

So the phones seem to be tanking kids’ intelligence, too. That may be why the people who work in Silicon Valley developing all of this tech won’t let their own children have iPads and send their kids to schools that boast screen-free environments.

Tech’s accomplice in crime: Coddling

Smartphones and social media were adopted by society faster than any other technology that came before. But the mental health crisis among young people likely didn’t start all-of-a-sudden with the iPhone 4.

The mental health crisis came on the heels of what Haidt calls “the coddling of the American mind.” His book on the topic, co-authored with Greg Lukianoff, is “…for anyone who is confused by what is happening on college campuses today, or has children, or is concerned about the growing inability of Americans to live, work, and cooperate across party lines.”

Lukianoff and Haidt explore the behind-the-scenes elements that contributed to the creation of emotionally and psychologically frail people: Folks who demand trigger warnings on syllabi for college classes, those who report feeling “unsafe” when somebody disagrees with them, and people who experience the common tribulations of life as “trauma.”

Are the “young-and-woke” just throwing around psycho-babble to sound cool? Perhaps. But Lukianoff and Haidt point out that Gen Zers also have particularly fragile nervous systems – and it isn’t their fault.

Many of the young people with mental illness grew up in a culture that didn’t allow them to so much as walk to school alone or have a play date without a parent (or two, or three) within earshot.

In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Lukianoff and Haidt explain the harms of helicopter parenting, excessive stranger danger, limited time playing (unsupervised) with other kids, participation trophies, and a shift away from responsibilities like chores and afterschool jobs. These changes in culture and parenting, they argue, have all harmed those born after 1996. The authors also blame social media and smartphones in part  for the fragility of younger generations.

What does this have to do with mental illness?

A nervous system that experiences words as literal violence will react as if it were exposed to actual physical violence when hearing an insult.

To be fragile is to be easily broken or damaged. By coddling young people, we leave them unprotected against the series of offenses and injuries that await them in adulthood.

Haidt points out that the rate of accidental injuries like broken arms have gone down dramatically in boys in their teens and 20’s. That may seem like a good thing, until we consider that the rate of depression and suicidal thoughts have gone up. Rather than exploring the world on their bicycles, these kids are at home playing video games and watching YouTube. Feeling lonely, useless, and untrained to do anything that matters, young people today are stuck in what Haidt calls “the cycle of incompetence.”

Contrary to its name, social media is not, in fact, all that sociable. The standards of what gets you accepted or rejected online are quite different than the standards of a village or a tangible community. Spending hours on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram, however, one can lose all of their friends, income, and credibility in a single afternoon upon being “cancelled.” Scrolling through one’s feed, one encounters tips for applying eye makeup interspersed with reputations marred by a single statement taken out of context. This content that drives comparison and self-consciousness is largely consumed during puberty: the time of life in which we are, by nature, our most awkward and self conscious.

During my coming-of-age, I definitely humiliated myself a few times, and more than once called my mother (from a payphone, of course) in tears, asking her to come pick me up. But these instances of public shaming all happened before a limited audience, such as at a house party with 50 kids present, or at a sleepover party with just a few other girls. Nobody took photos or videos that were then virally spread across the entire zip code – or world – for other kids to relish. Shame dispersed within weeks, if not days.

Haidt explains that the developing mind can be in “discovery mode” or “defensive mode,” but never in both states at once. An adolescence spent predominantly online, he explains, forces the brain to function primarily in “defensive mode,” seeing the world as full of threat. This, unsurprisingly, foments anxiety, depression, and the unhealthy coping mechanisms that follow.

In short: coddling children and giving them devices seems to make them depressed, anxious, suicidal, and entirely unprepared for adulthood.

What’s a parent to do?

Using Haidt’s recommendations as a starting point, here’s what I recommend that every parent consider:

  1. No smartphones before the age 16. If a child truly needs a device that fits in their pocket, they can use a flip phone or Blackberry.
  2. No phones in schools. Phones should not be allowed to physically enter school premises, even if they’re kept in backpacks or lockers.
  3. Parental controls on all devices, including tablets and laptops. Put time limits on the most addictive apps like YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and other social media platforms. (I suggest a 30-minute limit per day for what I call the “junk food apps.”) Configure the parental controls so that the devices do not work after 8pm on school nights and 9pm on weekends (or 2 hours before desired bedtime).
  4. All devices should be left in the kitchen or living room overnight – no devices in the bedrooms after lights out. Even if the devices have parental controls, kids can still scroll through photos or downloaded content. The blue light from the screen will keep them up hours after bedtime.
  5. No social media accounts before age 16.
  6. One hour of exercise – ideally outdoors – every day.
  7. At least one in-person play date or “hangout” with friends per week. (Playing video games together or using devices together doesn’t count.)
  8. Chores. All children ages 4 and up should expected to help with group tasks like setting the table before dinner or clearing the plates when everyone is finished eating. (Younger kids can be tasked with bringing just one fork to the table.) Kids older than 7 should be assigned weekly household chores.
  9. Work & Service. All children above the age of 15 should have a job or volunteer position, whether or not the family needs the money. Ideas include: working retail, babysitting the neighbors’ kids, or volunteering at the local animal rescue. (Here’s an incentive: the teen can save up their money to buy a smartphone when they turn 16!)
  10. No devices during mealtime – this means parents too!
  11. Encourage discovery mode by bringing children to new places and encouraging them to explore. Ideas include: museums, national parks, the beach, a pick-your-own-berries farm, a local sporting event, the state fair, a different country, or even just a restaurant you have’t tried before.

Change is possible.

It is possible to raise happier, healthier, and more resilient children. It entails putting down the devices and getting outside. Spoiler alert: if you do this alongside your kids, you’ll be happier and healthier, too.

Learn More:

Podcast: How smartphones rewired childhood, and what to do about it. Honestly with Bari Weiss, interview with Jonathan Haidt.

Book and website: The Anxious Generation.

Book and website: The Coddling of the American Mind. [Read Chapter 1 for free here.]

Article: What Happened to American Childhood? The Atlantic.

Article: End the Phone-Based Childhood Now, The Atlantic.

Article: It Sure Looks Like Phones Are Making Students Dumber, The Atlantic.