How can we begin to curb the increasing rates of anxiety and depression in the digital age?
In this project, I analyse the increasing levels of anxiety and depression amongst teenagers, specifically high school students. Although the majority of the research gathered is America-centric, I also examined and made a documentary about my international school’s experience with the rise of mental illness in the Vietnamese community. Current data is constantly displaying disparaging trends of rising Major Depression and Anxiety disorders, both general and social, amongst Americans of all ages, however the teenage demographic is most susceptible to this increase. Specialists have gone as far as to say that ‘It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.’ This should be a concern for both adults and adolescents, and I was determined to get to the bottom of why now are the rates of anxiety and depression skyrocketing unlike ever before.
In this digital age, there are an increasingly countless number of things to keep our minds occupied, buzzing, and on alert 24/7. It is unsurprising that the numbers of anxiety disorder cases and major depressive episodes have been rising dramatically since 2011, with the increased ownership of smartphones and social media in this age group. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 1 in 3 of all adolescents aged from 13 to 18 experience a type of anxiety disorder. Between 2007 and 2012, these rates went up by 20%. These concerning statistics combined with the rates of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers multiplying by two over the past decade makes researchers and society wonder, what has changed?
Thousands are convinced of one primary culprit: smartphones. With smartphones accompany other serious issues: social media, social comparison, cyber bullying, lack of real life socialising, and the never ending noise of the now interconnectedness of the globe. Social media plays a huge role in many of our lives, and with teenagers minds and self esteems not being concrete, they can be very vulnerable and susceptible to all the information they are exposed to. This was not an issue before the twenty-first century. Everything is so connected, immediate and confronting now. It can be very difficult for teenagers to navigate this revolutionary platform without encountering the predictable comparison of them and their own lives to people who seem perfectly happy. When the youth come across the highlight reel of their idols and they are not in a good place in their lives themselves, it can quickly turn into something more severe as their depressed state is amplified in contrast to these smiling, picture perfect lives they see on screen. Social comparison is driven by the idea that we are not happy with who we are and how our lives are going in contrast to how the lives of others are portrayed to be going. Psychologists suggest that when it comes to humans, it’s rarely just about ourselves, but more so ourselves among ‘them.’ With Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, and the ever growing number of platforms, it provides such a saturated opportunity for this social comparison to be driven to the ground. A study of 11,000 British students in early 2017 showed that those who were heavy users of social media were, on average, two to three times more likely to develop depression than those who did not utilise social media. Along with social comparison comes with this new sense of pressure to succeed in life that society has never felt before. Today, everyone is always seemingly on the ‘go’ and moving onto the next big thing. “Many people are worried about how busy they are,” says Dr. Laurel Williams, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital. We are conditioned to think everybody nowadays is always doing something, and if you’re not, you’re worthless and not making productive or effective use of your time. The high expectations and pressure to succeed in today’s society is grueling, ‘go getters’ advertised and displayed all over the media. This combined with the scholarly aspect of intensified standardised testing and higher requirements for professional success, adolescents today are bound to feel an immense amount of anxiety that past generations didn’t have to endure. Higher Education Research conducted a survey that questioned incoming university freshmen if they feel significantly overwhelmed by everything they have to handle in today’s modern world. In 2016, 41% of students answered ‘yes’ – contrasting with the 28% in the year 2000 and 18% in 1985.
In addition to the social comparison that social media naturally encourages, social media also provides a constant stream of current events, entailing all types of news and what is going on in the world. With the world that is beginning to feel increasingly scary and threatening with each day that passes, and it is always being displayed and broadcasted all over the internet, it is not unexpected that the youth may start to feel more fearful and vulnerable. We are seeing an increase in school shootings, and violence in everyday public areas. By simply logging onto social media or watching the news, students have more and more things clouding and darkening their already occupied and stressed minds, feeling more unsafe in the world than before. This whole idea of the world becoming more threatening, provokes more isolation, especially in this time, meaning adolescents do not go out into the ‘real world’ nearly as much. This, in turn, causes less face-to-face, in person interaction and socialising that humans require as social beings, and can begin to mold a very lonely and isolated mindset for many kids. Without forming proper, genuine connections, psychologists suggest that whatever feelings of hopelessness or anxiety or depression teenagers are facing, they have nowhere to go with it, and nobody to talk to. Despite the large ‘connectedness’ the concurrent social media advises, it has been studied to be the cause of what can make adolescents feel the most cut off and alone. In this generation of technology, we are being conditioned to become naturally anxious about regular social interactions that shouldn’t evoke any sort of stress. Think about it, even when the phone rings, someone you know will dread picking up and actually have to speak in real time; it’s so much less confronting to text. As the youth’s knowledge on how to interact properly with one another is thought to be deteriorating quietly, this can also be linked to the safety individuals feel behind a screen to say whatever they want, and to be hateful anonymously. According to numerous studies, groups who engage in social media on a frequent basis are also at a higher risk of being involved in cyber-bullying, which has been linked with anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts and ideation.
According to this report, the percentage of youths ages 12 to 17 that were diagnosed with major depression in 2016 increased by 63% from the 1.6% in 2013. For the young adults (ages 18-34), in 2016, it is shown that 4.4% were diagnosed with major depression 2016, in contrast to the 3% three years prior, marking at a 47% increase.
How can we begin to combat these climbing levels of anxiety and depression in teenagers? (Call to action)
According to The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), one in five children aged from 3 to 17, marking above 15 million, have a diagnosable emotional, mental, or behavioral illness in a given year. Despite this, less 20 percent of this demographic end up getting diagnosed or receiving any sort of care or treatment. Now more than ever, it can be so easy to miss symptoms of depression and anxiety amongst adolescents, as it can quickly be regarded as irritability, stress, passing sadness or regular horomonalness, says the National Institute of Mental Health. This combined with our busy lives and today’s society’s tendency to dismiss or make a joke out of these serious mental disorders, it is imperative people are made more aware of the true signs of symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Be mindful if anyone close to you is showing any of these calls for help (anxiety)
- Recurring worries and fears regarding routine parts of regular, everyday life;
- Sudden changes in behavior, such as irritability;
- Avoiding activities, socialising, or school;
- Dropping grades or a passive, unmotivated outlook on school;
- Difficulty sleeping or concentrating;
- Substance use/abuse or other dangerous activities;
- Chronic physical symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches, or stomachaches.
Look out for anyone close to you showing any of these telling signs (depression)
- Feelings of sadness, emptiness, darkness or helplessness;
- Tiredness, fatigue and lack of energy;
- Sudden outbursts of anger, irritability or frustration, even over smallest of matters;
- Anxiety, agitation or restlessness;
- Loss of interest, passion or happiness in all activities;
- Distancing oneself or pushing away from others;
- Difficulty sleeping, including abnormalities such as insomnia, undersleeping or oversleeping;
- Reduced appetite and abnormal weight loss or weight gain;
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt;
- Difficulty thinking and concentrating.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing things, there is hope for them still, and many proven treatments available. Research shows that the most effective treatments for anxiety and depressive disorders are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) medications. SSRIs are also known as antidepressants: these target different receptors in your brain to help balance the chemicals that are causing anxiety or depression. CBT challenges how an individual thinks, the psychology and deep rooted beliefs about their fears and anxieties, and teaches coping mechanisms like breathing exercises, muscle therapy, and positive self-talk. For some rewarding reassurance, various studies have found that a combination of CBT and SSRI medication for twelve weeks displays remarkable responses in 80% of adolescents suffering from anxiety disorders. Moreover, 65% of those adolescents studied showed minimal or no symptoms of anxiety after the twelve weeks of treatment.
For what you can do at this very moment: further educate yourself and your community and use your voice to raise awareness on the rise of anxiety and depression in students, and how to help look out for it. Find resources in your city, and try to get your school to have more of a stand and communication on students’ mental health, and how important it is. In this time in particular, perhaps encourage online chat forums where individuals can talk about how they are feeling under this pressing time, as I have implemented into my school. If you are a parent, be aware of your child’s screen time and sleeping habits, and make sure they are having healthy amounts of both, as they have been identified as large factors in the reasoning behind this spike of anxiety in today’s generation.
And finally, the most simple thing all of us can do is be there for one another. In this world of negativity and hate, spreading kindness is the most basic human thing we can do. Let people know you’re there for them, always, and be open minded and caring. Talk more openly and raise awareness about these signs and the serious nature of these mental illnesses, because the more you talk, the more you could encourage someone else to be brave and reach out to get help or at the very least open up about how they feel. Always listen to people, truly listen. Avoid any sort of judgment, and be empathetic for people. In times of grief such as now, all we have is each other. We are all experiencing this together. Find solace and comfort in one another, and know you are not alone, not now, and not ever.
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
National Crisis Textline: 741741
“Anxiety in Teens Is Rising: What’s Going On?” HealthyChildren.org, www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Anxiety-Disorders.aspx.
Fox, Maggie. “Major Depression on the Rise among Everyone, New Data Shows.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 11 May 2018, www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/major-depression-rise-among-everyone-new-data-shows-n873146.
Stanley, Scott. “Young and Cueless: Thinking About the Big Rise in Anxiety.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 7 Nov. 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sliding-vs-deciding/201711/young-and-cueless-thinking-about-the-big-rise-in-anxiety.