The Adolescent Crisis

The Adolescent Crisis March 15, 2024

I have become a big fan of Jonathan Haidt after reading his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt, a social psychologist who teaches at the business school at New York University, recently wrote an article about American adolescents (those born after 1996) that I found to be quite disturbing.

He reports that these young adults have the worst mental health of any generation for which we have data, going back to the “Greatest Generation” born between 1901 to 1925.

Girls, in particular, have seen a sharp rise in adolescent depression since 2013, the year after Facebook bought Instagram. Haidt highlights a major study that found that girls who are heavy users of social media are three times more likely to be depressed than non-users. The conclusion was clear: social media harms girls via multiple well-known mechanisms, including social comparison, early sexualization, perfectionism, cyber-bullying, and emotional contagion.

Dr. Anna Lembke, author of Dopamine Nation, sometimes urges her patients to undergo a “dopamine fast” for one month—a sufficient amount of time for the brain to start rewiring. But even unplugging for a few minutes can be scary for those caught in the cycle. She shares an example:

My patient Sophie, a Stanford undergraduate from South Korea, came in seeking help for depression and anxiety. Among the many things we talked about, she told me she spends most of her waking hours plugged into some kind of device: Instagramming, YouTubing, listening to podcasts and playlists. In session with her I suggested she try walking to class without listening to anything and just letting her own thoughts bubble to the surface. She looked at me both incredulous and afraid. “Why would I do that?” she asked, openmouthed.

A week later, Sophie returned and reported on the new experience: “It was hard at first. But then I got used to it and even kind of liked it. I started noticing the trees.”

Boy’s mental health, on the other hand, is not impacted as much by social media. Initially, Haidt wasn’t as concerned about boys because they seemed to use social media less. However, as he took a deep dive into boy’s mental health issues, he changed his mind.

While girls have higher rates of depression, often two or three times higher, boys have much higher rates of suicide, which Haidt describes as, “the deepest sign of a crisis for boys.”

So what has changed for boys and young men? The key change seems to be their retreat from the real world. Teenage boys began investing less effort in school, employment, dating, and eventually marriage. Many of these boys do not seem to be hopeful about the future.

Haidt believes that the role of digital and entertainment technologies is pulling and keeping boys away from the real world. The rise of online multiplayer games in the 2000s according to Haidt, which he calls the virtual world, “sent out a siren song that sounded sweeter to boys than it did to girls.”

I also found it interesting that on average boys are more attracted to things, machines, and complex systems, while girls are more attracted to people and relationships.

What surprised me was that Haidt did not offer any solutions. However, he is currently writing a book titled, The Anxious Generation, where I suspect he will address these problems and offer solutions.

I would just say to any parent currently raising children, I would encourage them to be avid readers of books, and limit their use of social media.

Finally, it is critical that your children have a spiritual life, a relationship with Christ. As a person develops this relationship, they find that life has purpose and meaning. They discover who they are and most significantly will begin to see their lives transformed. Over time they become more like Christ.

Christlikeness may not have a great deal of appeal to a teenager, but once they learn what it actually is, they may change their mind. Christlikeness is simply:

  • To be transformed in our character
  • To grow in wisdom
  • To love, to have compassion, and to have quality relationships

Our kids need to be taught that character, wisdom, and love are fundamental to being authentic men and women.

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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