Over the past decade or so, rates of depression, psychological distress and suicidal thoughts and actions have risen dramatically among people 26 and younger, with some of the highest increases among women and people at higher income levels, according to a new study of a broad swath of young Americans.
The report, published Thursday in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Abnormal Psychology, looked at survey data from more than 600,000 adolescents and adults. It found that in the past 10 to 12 years, the number of people reporting symptoms indicative of major depression jumped 52 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds and 63 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds; the rate for both groups is now at 13.2 percent. Serious psychological distress and suicide-related thoughts or actions also shot up, by 71 percent in young adults, from 7.7 percent to 13.1 percent.
The percentages for older adults remained stable over the same period, indicating that whatever is driving the changes is something disproportionately affecting those who are young at this particular period in history, the report said, noting that "cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger people compared to older people."
The report, which used data from the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health and also relied on suicide statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found the greatest upticks in young people who were wealthier and female.
The changes were unlikely to be tied to poor financial prospects or substance abuse, the report said, noting that they occurred during a period of economic expansion and at a time when drug and alcohol use among young people has been unchanged or decreasing.
Instead, the report said the increases may be linked to increased time spent on social media and electronic communication, along with a decrease in the hours of sleep young people are getting. Lack of sleep is associated with depression and anxiety.
"Social media has moved from being something that about half of teens were using every day to something almost all teens are doing every day," said the report's lead author, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy - and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood."
"It used to be an optional thing, and now, especially among girls, it's virtually mandatory," she said. Noting that girls are more likely to use their devices for social media while boys often prefer gaming, she called social media "the perfect place to be verbally aggressive," which can contribute to depression and low self-esteem.
Social media plays into an innate human and animal preoccupation with hierarchy, said Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in Oakland, California, and a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families. "It offers almost a minute-to-minute update on your social status," he said. "Every interaction you have is rated, and that's basically what life is like for young people these days."
He said the report's findings were not surprising.
"I certainly am hearing parents talk more than ever of kids who are really struggling" he said. Noting the reduction in outdoor play and the rise in overprotective parenting in recent years, he added that "the message being transmitted by parents is that the world is a dangerous place.
"Children aren't really being allowed to be exposed to the idea that you can survive stress . . . so all of this could be affecting children's ability to feel resilient and be resilient to everyday stressors," he said.
The increase in adolescent psychological distress was higher among wealthier people, rising 79 percent between 2010 and 2017 in the highest income bracket, to 14.1 percent, while rising 55 percent, to 15.3 percent, in the lowest income group during the same period.
Among high-income families, the pressure on children to compete and succeed has increased in recent years, said Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University.
"Maintaining your parents' standard of living is harder than it was 20 years ago," she said. "They feel, 'I have to get into that top university that my parents attended, and if I don't, I have no life, I will be left behind, I won't be able to support myself.' "
But Robert Crosnoe, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Texas, Austin and the president of the Society for Adolescence, disagreed with the idea that today's youth are on a downslide. Despite the increase in distress indicators, he said, the overall percentages are still low.
"There is this narrative out there of teenagers going off the cliff (but) by most indicators, they seem to be doing pretty well, relative to what was going on 20 years ago," he said, noting that pregnancy and risky behavior has gone down among adolescents while family time has increased. "The majority of adolescents are doing great in terms of mental health. . . . I'm not willing to say that we have a widespread problem on our hands when it's only 13 percent of the population."
But if the numbers keep rising, that will be a problem, Crosnoe said, adding that mental health services for adolescents are inadequate.
"We are living at a time of massive inequality, where the key to social mobility in our country is higher education, but access to higher education has not expanded," he said. "Kids sense that their futures are very uncertain, and that's also anxiety-producing."
This article was written by Tara Bahrampour, a reporter for The Washington Post.