Social Media Isn’t the Main Reason Teens Are Depressed.
The “dangers” of social media lend themselves to alarmist headlines, especially when there are high-profile cases of abuse or violence with a social media component. That’s why many commentators, advocates, and Congress members are simply blaming teens for their increased stresses and advancing proposals to ban persons under age 16 from social media like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok.
Like many policy efforts when it comes to youth, this misses the mark and ignores the real crises afflicting teenagers.
The real crises the most troubled teens face involve their parents’ rising addiction, suicidal and addictive behaviors, and violent and emotional abuses. Bans on teens’ online access are dangerous, since surveys indicate the most distressed fraction of youths use social media to connect to others and find “people who can support them during tough times.”
Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) just-released “Youth Risk Behavior Survey,” generating alarmist headlines like “Teen girls ‘engulfed’ in violence and trauma, CDC finds,” invites exactly the kind of distractions and scapegoating being pushed with ill-advised bans.
The latest report finds a bizarre contradiction. On one hand, teens themselves are generally improving their behaviors with respect to drugs and alcohol, school violence, and sexual responsibility—findings similar to those of the FBI, CDC, and Census Bureau that actual crime, unwanted pregnancies, and school dropouts by youths are plummeting. Only 15% to 16% report bullying (even under a very broad definition) at school or online—the two venues with which commentators and leaders seem obsessed.
Decades of research show that troubled teenagers are the product of abusive, troubled adult families.
On the other hand, the new CDC report finds dangers and violence toward teens inflicted by others is increasing dramatically. For example, 18% of girls report being sexually victimized. But, as in other areas of endangerment, the CDC fails to explore who is perpetrating the violence. If, as the FBI reports, rape and sexual assault by teens have plunged to all-time lows, who is sexually victimizing young women?
The latest CDC report similarly finds LGBTQ+ youth, and youth who have otherwise had same-sex sexual contact, reporting alarming levels of forced sex and violence. It then fails again to ask about the perpetrators. Are they partners? Peers? Adults? Proud Boys? Instead, the CDC seems to invite speculation as to who to blame.
The previous survey, released by the CDC in March 2022, similarly proclaimed a teenage mental health crisis, although it did pose more questions than the most recent report. It found 11% of high school respondents reporting violent abuses and a shocking 55% reporting psychological abuses by parents and household adults. A 2013–2014 study by University of New Hampshire researchers using slightly different measures and age groups showed sharp increases over teens’ reports of violent and emotional abuses by parents and caregivers.
The CDC’s 2022 report cited violent abuses by parents that included hitting, beating, kicking, and otherwise physically hurting their children, while emotional abuses included insulting, swearing, and name-calling. The CDC did not ask about sexual abuse by parents and grownups—which was in keeping with major commentators, like The Atlantic’s Jonathan Haidt and The New Yorker’s Cal Newport, whose reports have dodged abuse issues altogether to blame teen problems on social media.
The CDC’s 2022 report found 3 to 4 times more teens reporting parental abuses (55%) than its 2023 report found for school (15%) or cyber (16%) bullying, even though the agency’s definition of parental abuse is narrower than for peer bullying. LGBTQ+ youth again suffer the most. They are 4 times more likely to be violently abused by household adults and 3 to 5 times more likely to have attempted suicide than non-LGBTQ+ youth.
Decades of research show that troubled teenagers are the product of abusive, troubled adult families. Physical and emotional abuses inflicted by household adults are firmly linked to their children’s later depression and suicide, closely tracking the increase in teens who reported having “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” (26% in 2013; 44% in 2021).
Crises among America’s grown-ups are severe. Among parent-aged adults over the past three decades, per-capita rates of suicides and drug and alcohol overdose deaths have more than tripled, reaching record peaks in 2020–2022 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Adult depression recently also tripled, a 2020 Boston University study found.
Compared with 15-year-olds, today’s 45-year-olds are 1.5 times more likely to die by gunfire, 1.5 times more likely to be criminally arrested, 3 times more likely to commit suicide, 4.5 times more likely to die from all violent causes, 25 times more likely to fatally overdose on illicit drugs (including 23 times more for fentanyl), and over 100 times more likely to die from binge drinking, the CDC and FBI report. Higher death rates are only the tip of the iceberg pointing to a much larger number of family problems.
This is not a “teenage mental health crisis.” It is a troubled-adult crisis compounded by the obliviousness of derelict leaders and interests who have failed to address America’s burgeoning epidemics. We should be shocked if teens weren’t more anxious and depressed.
Abuses cause real-life injuries and deaths. The latest “Child Maltreatment” report, covering 2020, by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, tabulated about 160,000 child and youth victims of physical and sexual abuses and nearly 40,000 victimized by severe psychological abuses inflicted by parents and other household adults in substantiated cases that represent only a fraction of what actually occurs. FBI tabulations project that nearly 500 homicide victims ages 12–17 were killed by people ages 25 and older in 2020—a dozen times more than were killed in school shootings.
Missing (and Misrepresenting) the Point
Nearly all press reports seem to avoid admitting the disturbing realities that teens cannot evade.
A typical example is the scary-sounding but meaningless statistic that “suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens.” That’s not because suicide is particularly rampant among teenagers, but because teens rarely die from natural causes. For example, in 2021 and 2022, the CDC to date records 4,184 suicides and 2,705 deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer for ages 12–19; and 8,661 suicides and 73,257 deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer among ages 42–49. Deaths can be lamented without completely misrepresenting teens as uniquely self-imperiled.
Unfortunately, legislators and other leaders have proven unable and unwilling to design effective responses to the United States’ epidemics of drug and alcohol fatalities, gun violence, suicide, and related self-destructive behaviors that together killed more than 400,000 people in the U.S. in 2020-2021. Yet, many of those same commentators and leaders eagerly blame social media and teens.
Should we also ban youths from associating with their parents, going to church, joining organizations like the Scouts, playing sports, and going to school, all of which have histories of large-scale abuses of children and youths and institutional cover-ups?
Studies that examine social media impacts in a nuanced fashion have found the large majority of teens benefit. Only 9% told a 2022 Pew Research Center survey that social media negatively affects them personally. (Interestingly, 32% thought it negatively impacted other teens.) Pew found “80% said social media gives them some level of connection to what is going on in their friends’ lives, 71% said it’s a place where they can show their creativity, 67% said social media reassures them that they have people to support them, and 58% said it makes them feel more accepted.” (One unspoken motivation for Republicans to back restrictions might be that, according to Pew, youth identifying with the Democratic Party or politics are both more numerous and more likely than Republican youth to use social media to communicate and organize.)
In contrast, few teens among both those who find social media positive and negative reported bad experiences, like pressure to conform, feeling excluded, feeling worse about their lives, or being “overwhelmed by all the drama.” Both teen groups said their online experiences are better than parents think.
Surveys question youths on problems chosen by surveyors. When surveys ask teens to name their biggest problems, they cite worries over family finances, caring for family members and themselves, and the future, not social media.
Leave Those Kids Alone
Congress has a dismal record of imposing effective age limits on what it deems dangerous behavior. Long-term research using improved techniques found that raising the nation’s drinking age to 21, initially celebrated for “saving lives” (albeit at the cost of hundreds of thousands of annual teenaged arrests), actually just “postpones fatalities” into young adulthood by disrupting the vitally important gaining of “experience” with alcohol. Likewise, imposing strict teen-driving laws was associated more with increasing fatalities among young adults than with reducing them among younger teens
Alarmism hurled at every younger generation for more than a century has proven useless. Within a couple of years, the alarmists are back to proclaim new youthful crises worse than ever.
Leading psychologists of the early 1900s trumpeted the “extraordinary increase” in “child suicide” they blamed on popular media (“cheap theaters, pessimistic literature, sensational stories”). The American Youth Commission’s 1936 testing found 75% of young men were suffering debilitating mental troubles. Science News Letter reported in 1937 that kids “as young as six to thirteen” were being treated for suicidal thinking. (Pundits now call those kids the “Greatest Generation”).
Surveys found mental health professionals of the 1980s estimating the average teenager was more mentally disturbed than psychiatric patients. In the 1980s, the psychiatric industry profitably hyped the “tripling in teen suicide” to fill empty beds in overbuilt hospitals. In the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center, led by Tipper Gore, blamed rock music for teenagers’ woes. A 1995 CDC report declared suicide had “soared” among young adolescents. In 1998, Rolling Stone blamed television for children being “the most damaged and disturbed generation this country has ever produced.” In the early 2000s, college and university counselors proclaimed a “campus mental health crisis” and won tuition increases to fund more staff. Apparently, it didn’t do any good. Counselors are back again, demanding more money because “student mental health is in crisis.”
What we should be studying is how teenagers, supposedly impulse-driven, miserable, “temporary sociopaths,” should be so unlikely to act self-destructively compared with supposedly stable, mature grownups. They don’t need authorities stepping in once again with more misdirected alarmism and destructive bans that trivialize the real-life problems they face.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the principal investigator for YouthFacts, and the author of five books on American youth.