Dr Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, returns to explore the themes of her recent Health Foundation lecture
Around 2012, something started to go wrong in the lives of teenagers. In both the US and UK, rates of depression among teens started to rise. By 2019 – even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit – they had doubled. More and more teenagers around the world said they felt lonely and like an outsider at school. This wasn’t just due to teenagers being more likely to admit to negative feelings – behaviours connected to poor mental health, like self-harm and suicide attempts, also rose around the same time.
At first, the cause of these trends was a mystery. They didn’t line up with economic shifts, family trends or world events. But something did start to change in the lives of teenagers around 2012. More started to use smartphones and be on social media for several hours a day. At the same time, teens also started spending less time with their friends in person and less time sleeping. This is not a formula for good mental health.
Is technology to blame?
I am not suggesting that all or even most cases of teen depression are due to technology use – there are many causes of depression, including genetic predisposition, poverty, discrimination and abuse. But for the sudden increase in depression – the excess cases after 2012 – the changes wrought by technology are a prime culprit. Nothing else changed so much in teens’ lives during that time.
If the changes brought about by social media and smartphones are the cause of the sudden rise in teen depression, it might actually be good news – because we can do something about it. Links between depression and social media use are strongest among the youngest teens. So we (parents, policymakers and so on) can keep children and younger teens (those younger than 16 years) off social media. We can put reasonable limits on the amount of time teens spend on social media. In a recent analysis, I found that 1 in 5 US teenage girls spends 7 or more hours a day on social media – more than a full-time job. We can also make sure that teens don’t have their phones in their bedrooms overnight (and we don’t either)!
In 2021, I was a guest on the Health Foundation podcast Inside the teen mind: what’s happening to mental health. In May this year, at a lecture I delivered for the Health Foundation, I had the chance to discuss this research and answer questions about it. A few general themes came up in the Q&A session with the audience, which I return to answer here with my views.
1. How much of the harm to young people’s mental health do you think is down to the amount of social media use, and how much is down to the content that is viewed?
We really don’t know the answer to this question. It’s likely to be a mix of both. Teenagers who spend 7 hours or more a day on social media are clearly missing out on other more beneficial activities (like uninterrupted time with friends in person). And the content of social media can also be problematic. For example, Facebook’s own research found that Instagram contributed to body image and mental health issues among teens, especially girls. Social media isn’t just about communicating with friends. The apps use algorithms to serve up content and keep people using them as long as possible, as frequently as possible.
2. How can we co-produce solutions with young people that reflect their lifestyles and values?
Several organisations addressing technology use were founded by Gen Z young adults, including LogOff and Design It for Us. I’m hoping we will see more advocacy from this generation around technology, since they are the ones who know their experiences best. Some schools have also instituted youth councils that discuss these issues and possible solutions. I have heard, for example, that many students are interested in a policy of no phones during the school day – but it's their parents who often resist.
3. What policy actions should governments and social media companies be taking?
I’d like to see the minimum age for social media raised to 16 years and see age actually verified. Fortunately, there are now many third-party companies that can do this, which helps with privacy concerns. The technology is out there to verify age – social media companies just need to be required to use it so we can finally ensure that children are not using sites meant for adults. And they do: among US 10- to 12-year-olds – all too young to meet even the current minimum age of 13 – most use social media, and about 40% do even when their parents have explicitly told them they are not allowed to.
Children don’t need parental permission to open a social media account. And since age isn’t verified, 9- and 10-year-olds are routinely using TikTok and Instagram, often without their parents’ knowledge. Parents are struggling. We really need group-level solutions to this issue. If those are implemented, parents won’t have to worry that their children or young teens are going to be left out if they don’t use social media – virtually no one their age will be using it.
About the author
Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, is the author of more than 180 scientific publications and books.
Dr. Twenge frequently gives talks and seminars on generational differences and technology based on a dataset of 39 million people. Her audiences have included college faculty and staff, parent groups, youth advocates, high school teachers, military personnel, camp directors, and corporate executives. Her research has been covered in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, and The Washington Post, and she has been featured on Today, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, Fox and Friends, NBC Nightly News, Dateline NBC, and National Public Radio.
She holds a BA and MA from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. She lives in San Diego with her husband and three daughters.