Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is the author of the new book Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents – and What They Mean for America’s Future.
About 10 years ago, something started to go wrong in the lives of teens. Rates of depression, self-harm and suicide began to rise among North American teens. The increases only grew larger as the years went on.
Between 2011 and 2019, depression rates doubled among U.S. teens in the National Survey of Drug Use and Health. According to the 2021 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, 47 per cent of students in Grades 7 to 12 reported experiencing a moderate-to-serious level of psychological distress, while 18 per cent of students admitted they had “seriously contemplated suicide in the past year.”
We are in the midst of a full-blown mental-health crisis for our adolescents. Policy makers are rightfully exploring many possible solutions to help children and teens toward better mental health.
Given that teen depression has been rising for more than a decade, however, this is no longer an issue unique to adolescents. The teens who struggled with depression in the mid-2010s are now young adults, and they are still struggling.
Annual rates of depression among young adults in the U.S. are also at unprecedented levels, which is unfortunately not surprising; the younger someone experiences their first episode of depression, the more likely it is that depression will reoccur. In an analysis of the World Values Survey, 15- to 25-year-old Canadians were six times more likely to report being unhappy in 2017-20 than they were in 2005-09.
The mental-health issues afflicting Generation Z (born 1995-2012) have also now started to come for millennials, the next-oldest generation: Depression rates among U.S. adults in their 30s also began to increase after 2015. The rise in depression among young and prime-age adults has numerous sequelae, including an increased need for mental-health care and the potential for decreased work productivity.
Another downstream effect of depression has not received much discussion, but may have an even larger long-term impact on society. Depression is not just about emotion – it’s about thinking. By definition, people who are depressed or unhappy see the world in a negative light, and we are just starting to see the consequences.
Even before the pandemic, an increasing number of young people in the U.S. were pessimistic about the future. In an annual survey of Grade 12 students, more agreed that “every time I try to get ahead, something or somebody stops me.” Fewer said they expected to get a professional job as adults or own more than their parents. One Gen Zer made a TikTok video trying to explain his generation’s viewpoint to older people: “You had the privilege of growing up in a world where there was hope and opportunity – and we don’t,” he said.
We should pause for a moment here to consider whether these views are objectively correct – is our current era measurably worse than previous times? Probably not: Even with the threats of climate change, it is difficult to argue that 2023 is a significantly worse time for young people than 2008-10 during the global financial crisis, the 1980s when people thought the world might end at any moment from nuclear war, or the late 1960s when U.S. boomers were getting drafted into Vietnam. Every generation faces its challenges; it seems likely that Gen Z’s negativity is at least partially perception rather than reality.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the most popular and effective treatment for depression, notes that depression often involves cognitive distortions. Two seem especially relevant for views of society. Negative filtering involves focusing on the negative and rarely on the positives. Thus, a depressed person might say, “The world has gotten worse and worse year after year,” without acknowledging any positive developments. Then there’s discounting positives, or thinking that good things are unimportant – for example, “Freedom doesn’t mean much if the system is so unfair.” These two cognitive distortions go a long way toward explaining why more young people are so nihilistic.
Another cognitive distortion is dichotomous thinking, or viewing events or people in all-or-nothing terms. That distortion is also in full view on a regular basis: Cancel culture publicly shames people for a single mistake, and political divisions can lead people to automatically reject anything said by a member of another party. Together, these cognitive distortions create the current world view of many young people: that the world is one enormous dumpster fire, and enemies are everywhere.
Going forward, this will be one of the biggest challenges of Western democracies: How can leaders convince young people that their country is a good place to live? If they can’t, young people might want to burn the whole thing down. There’s a name for that: a revolution.
At this point, it might be helpful to go back to the beginning: Why did teen depression increase in the first place?
One reason is the fundamental change in how people socialize. Teens and young adults spent progressively less time socializing in person between 2010 and 2019. For the young, socializing moved online, especially to social media. More time online and less with friends in person is not a good formula for mental health.
Another factor may be the increasing toxicity of online culture beginning in the mid-2010s. Before then, social media was mostly for posting pictures of friends and family. Then Facebook introduced the “like” button and Twitter premiered the “retweet” button. Because negative and angry content gets more likes and retweets, it spreads faster.
Soon after, many features of our current cultural moment began to appear. Misinformation spread, cancel culture premiered as social media enabled instant public shaming, and university campuses began to see an increased attention to words and opinions. Political polarization reached dizzying heights and national discourses turned negative. This was stressful for everyone, but was even more stressful for young people learning about society and forming their political identities.
The freedom of the open internet has enormous upsides. However, we are now seeing the results of its downsides. Even when people want to reduce their social-media time, powerful social-media algorithms conspire against that desire. Governments are becoming more interested in regulating social media, especially use among children. It remains to be seen whether they can do anything about toxic online culture.
There is a more hopeful potential outcome: Perhaps young people will channel their negativity into political activism, acting within the system to change what they think isn’t working. Even if so, we must find ways to counter the negativity of online discourse and work to improve the mental health of young people. Democracies with legions of unhappy young citizens cannot stay stable for long.