Cell Phones Still Somehow Get The Entirety Of The Blame For Teen Depression

from the little-too-convenient dept

For years now a strong narrative has emerged that the increase in teen depression (and suicides) is almost single handedly being caused by social media and cell phone use. Though quite often when you look a little more deeply at the studies in question you’ll find they’re a bit undercooked, tend to make overly broad assumptions about trends, and are often contradicted by other studies.

For example, a 2019 study out of the UK of 12,000 adolescents found that most links between life satisfaction and social media use were “trivial,” overall accounting for less than 1% of a teenager’s sense of wellbeing. Another study from last year combed through 20 different studies on social media’s impact on young adults and kids and found “there doesn?t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues.”

There’s clearly a lot going wrong in the world, and a lot of it emotionally exhausting. Yet for whatever reason cell phone social media usage continues to often get the entirety of the blame for teen depression. An opinion column in the New York Times last week, for example, points to a new study showing a dramatic spike around the world in “teenage loneliness” starting in 2012:

“In a paper we just published in The Journal of Adolescence, we report that in 36 out of 37 countries, loneliness at school has increased since 2012. We grouped the 37 countries into four geographic and cultural regions, and we found the same pattern in all regions: Teenage loneliness was relatively stable between 2000 and 2012, with fewer than 18 percent reporting high levels of loneliness. But in the six years after 2012, rates increased dramatically. They roughly doubled in Europe, Latin America and the English-speaking countries, and rose by about 50 percent in the East Asian countries.”

But again that whole causation/correlation monster rears its head. The author of the piece and study even proceeds to acknowledge that they couldn’t actually make the link the article itself is trying to forge:

“These analyses don?t prove that smartphones and social media are major causes of the increase in teenage loneliness, but they do show that several other causes are less plausible. If anyone has another explanation for the global increase in loneliness at school, we?d love to hear it.”

I imagine that the heavy dose of shallow peer comparison on social media and ceaseless marketing likely does contribute to some teen depression. And too much social media use likely isn’t the healthiest thing in the world. But blaming cell phones entirely for the problem of teen depression seems utterly too convenient. Often these platforms and technologies are just windows to cultural and environmental dysfunction, which, if you hadn’t noticed, there’s a hell of a lot of at the moment.

There’s structural racism, the continued threat of a white nationalist movement, the collapse of a stable environment leading to countless, recurring disasters, incompetently run and financed education systems (at least here in the U.S.), substandard mental health care (at least in the US), rampant mass murder via firearm (at least in the US), and examples everywhere you look of leaders proving themselves either too corrupt or incompetent to handle the challenges of the modern age. That the biggest contributor to teen angst is the fact they now have a supercomputer in their pocket — itself doesn’t really compute.

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Comments on “Cell Phones Still Somehow Get The Entirety Of The Blame For Teen Depression”

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28 Comments
James Burkhardt (profile) says:

View from nowhere studies strike again

I mean, a supercomputer in your pocket and social media allow you to be more aware of all the worlds issues. I fully believe the data they have, they just don’t spend any time thinking at all about why. Its the classic "view from nowhere" problem applied to science. Surface assessment of factual data, surface conclusion, no real thought into what it is that kids see on social media.

The scientists should know social media tends to discuss and link to reporting on current events. They should know that since the 2008 financial collapse, exacerbated in the last 4 years, and rocket-strapped after the 2020 pandemic and ongoing economic and health crisis, there has been a steadily growing discontent with the economic structures in the developed world. Social media doesn’t just allow harassment, it allows those discussions.

A constant refrain from mental health professionals is the dispair my generation, millenials, experience in the face of major 2 economic disasters in my adult lifetime, evidence that policy is focusing recovery to maintain the cash flows of the rich stunting recovery for anyone else, a housing market impacted by a few hording excess housing for profit driving costs so high that home ownership is impractical and holds less value than for previous generations, and wages that have not appreciably increased in our lifetime as costs go up all around us. We are sharing that with others on social media. We explain this. And it causes further dispair.

But thats not because of social media. Its because of the socio-economic realities of modern life. Social Media justs allows those realities to be expressed to a wider audiance.

I’d have loved to read the articles on how the radio was causing depression because it had someone read the news.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: View from nowhere studies strike again

Its the closed vision of people who DONT understand or remember their own past.
What are kids and the rest Bombarded with Daily? That they cant get away from?
Family life, Looking into the future, No jobs ahead, Nations fighting and debating fighting. Corps that have Cut corners and Work pay to the point we are no better then Slaves?(as USA is finding no one WANTS those crap jobs). No one is telling you how to get ahead or find the better jobs, and education past High school ISNT CHEAP.

Then there is the idea of Who is lying about what? Corps, gov., Schools? How do we sort all the BS out of our lives?

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Glenn says:

The number one reason for teens getting depressed is their parents having done a really poor job of raising them to live in this world.

If your kids have a problem, you’re probably the cause of it–either because of what you did or what you failed to do. So, fix it. (Yeah, that’s right… you’ve got to spend time with them and talk with them–which involves listening and thinking. Hope that’s not too tough for you.)

Anonymous Coward says:

The ability to connect with people online when you couldn’t find them in meatspace leads to more loneliness. Got it.

Maybe it’s merely a trend to self-report as lonely when asked, these days.

Maybe it’s a lot of the current situation, as political and cultural bullshit do seem to always ratchet up.

Maybe, for whatever reason, younger humans are in one of those cyclical phases where they tend more to realize what a hollow world of shit it is in which they live.

Will wider society ever address the problems which are the actual causes of human suffering and unhappiness? No.

Unless, maybe, what it takes is an empowered generation who grew up depressed and maybe a little more self-aware and socially critical to do that. Who says this supposed trend in teen depression is actually unhealthy?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Who says this supposed trend in teen depression is actually unhealthy?

It’s unhealthy because it exposes the status quo as unhealthy, and thus makes the parents, businesses, schools and government look bad.

Nothing rustles the jimmies of adults in authority like the possibility of their child, teen or subordinate risking their reputation.

NaBUru38 (profile) says:

Maybe the young can’t stand the massive economic inequalities, where the the elite travels to space for fun and corporations exploit workers and consumers, while billions struggle to pay for food, housing and healthcare?

Maybe the young can’t stand politicians keeping shouting each other instead of solving problems, and the media eager to show the chaos as entertaiment?

Maybe the young can’t stand oppression, discrimination and violence?

Nah, it must be TikTok and Candy Crush.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Back in my day

We had to be depressed without causes like phones and video games.

Like maybe puberty and life being a teen in the US being just awful.

The meager (Apple II and TRS-80) video games we had actually helped providing distracting relief. And while phones are a vector for cyberbullying, they’re also a place were kids can message friends, parents and professionals, when they have access.

But this smacks of plenty of other moral panics, that when we don’t want to look into real reasons for mental health failures and parenting failures, we look for scapegoats.

In that case, Great Satan always works.

Jeff Thorsen says:

Depression and stress are influenced by many factors. And it’s not just teenagers who suffer from this. And there is a stage when it seems to you that everything is fine. But you continue to be depressed without noticing it. Once on the Internet, I found a website and learned how important it is to turn for help to a specialist in time. After all, a long depressive state can lead to tragic consequences.

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