Major depression is on the rise among Americans across the board, but research has shown that it is increasing most among one specific demographic.
Facing the Facts
A study published by The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association looked at the medical health insurance claims of 41 million insurance holders and found that those born from 1981 to 1996 (also known as Millennials) saw a 47 percent rise in diagnoses of major depression since 2013.
For adolescents (ages 12 to 17), diagnoses of major depression saw a 63 percent increase.
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A separate study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, found a similar increase in major depression episodes in American teenagers and young adults ages 18 to 25. The study found symptoms consistent with major depression reported as being experienced over the past year increased 52 percent in teens and 63 percent in young adults over a decade. "Girls were more vulnerable than boys," NPR's assessment states.
"By 2017, one out of every five teenage girls had experienced major depression in the last year."
So, what led to such a drastic spike in depression among young Americans?
Some say it has to do with online habits.
Identifying the Impacts
"When you think of how lives have changed from 2010 to 2017, a clear answer is that over time, people started spending more time on phones and on social media, less time face-to-face with their friends, and less time sleeping," San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean M. Twenge, who co-authored the study for the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, told MedPage Today.
Moreover, the declining mental health rates make sense when considering the way technology has taken root in the average life of an American teen. While the World Wide Web has made information more accessible and communication easier, it has also led to growing social pressures, criticism from Internet trolls, and a plethora of constantly accessible social media forums offering a warped-version of reality that too many accept as truth.
In addition to navigating the falsehoods of the online world, young people may often experience feelings of isolation and low self-esteem as a result of excessive time spent online.
A 2018 study published in scientific journal Emotion, found “self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness” of adolescents in the U.S. "suddenly declined in 2012." It continued on in a downward trend through 2016, according to Pacific Standard.
Meanwhile, during that time, Smartphone ownership increased from 50 percent of the U.S. population to 77 percent. Since 2012, the popular media site Instagram has risen to 1 billion users in contrast to its 30 million in 2012. Figures like these may provide some not-so-subtle clues as to why the mental health of America's young people has decreased so significantly in recent years.
“Millennials were the first generation to grow up with the constant flow of information from the internet and social media they are being bombarded with details about the personal and professionals lives of others,” Jessica Singh, mental health expert and trauma-focused therapist, told Healthline.
Singh added that millennials “can’t help but compare their situations and achievements to everyone else’s, which can leave them feeling insecure and unaccomplished."
Aforementioned psychological author Twenge explains that social media use can also lead to poorer social skills — something that is developed during adolescence.
Twenge wrote, "today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly—on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook."
With social posts documenting every moment, it's no surprise that more and more teens are feeling isolated. The constant intake of visual information can be challenging to cope with while teens struggle with the already-daunting task of growing up.
Some researchers suggest that limiting screen time and sticking to self-set limitations can have an enormously positive impact on those most negatively impacted by social media.
A study led by Melissa Hunt at Penn State’s psychology department monitored 143 students and their social media usage. Some students were advised to keep using social media as they normally would while others were limited to only 10 minutes per day on each platform - bringing daily time spent on social media to about thirty minutes across Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. The results were clear.
Published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, the findings state, "The limited use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group." The conclusion was this: "limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being."
Now, this doesn't mean everyone should ditch their smartphones and computers. After all, technology has helped raise awareness about mental health and eradicated long-held taboos surrounding topics like depression and anxiety.
But if opting out of technology isn't the way to go, what's the solution for teenagers who feel like they don't belong in a media culture saturated by flashy self-promotion posts and comments?
Though easier said than done, part of the solution is decreasing unconscious consumption of online content and recognizing that digital status and follower numbers are not an indication of worth. Additionally, spending time with friends in the real world can help young people bridge the gap between their concept of the world as reflected by social media norms and the way the world actually is.
Since unplugging may prove to be a challenging pursuit for the digital native, extremely online people may find that online resources for mental health are the most helpful solution. While it may seem more enticing to scroll through Instagram, there is great benefit to be gained from dedicating screen time to wellness-focused apps and even online therapy.
Mental health applications offer educated psychologists who are able to host therapy sessions through video chats and texts. When it comes to psychological treatment, the ease of use and accessibility of these online services is a huge stride.
Other apps provide services like meditation guides and mood trackers. Resources like these can be life-altering. Some doctors are even using virtual reality in conjunction with medication to treat conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. So, there may be some hope after all for mental health in the digital world.
Recognizing the Uncertainties
Though arguments on both sides of this issue present convincing arguments, one thing remains clear: the relationship between media and mental health is more complex than simply, "increased screen time means decreased mental health."
Speaking to the influence of tech, Florence Breslin of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research told Vox, “Screen time isn’t a thing; it’s 100 things."
Breslin added, "It’s social media, it’s video games. it’s research, it’s reading.”
With so many different capacities accessible to us in the Information Age, it's nearly impossible to identify one particular part of it as the culprit behind the decline in mental health. There is still a great deal that remains unknown regarding how the digital world affects our wellbeing.
The best thing we can do is seek professional guidance for irregular moods and behaviors and adopt healthy internet habits to cultivate greater self-awareness and navigate our complex emotional worlds from a more informed standpoint.
If you're concerned about the effect social media is having on your health, take control of your life and make the simple choice to unplug. If even for a few smartphone-free moments of solace a day, sometimes the best thing we can do for our minds is to give them a break.