We’ve gotten the “teenage mental health crisis” dangerously wrong

The rise in depression, anxiety and suicidal behaviors among adolescents has generated thousands of commentaries blaming social media while calls for restrictions on teens’ online access many states and Congress are advancing.

However, leaders, authorities, and commentators on the issue uniformly ignore the Centers for Disease Control’s 116-question, 7,800-subject Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey that documented teen’s “mental health crisis” in the first place.

The CDC survey found 11% of 12-18-year-olds reporting violent abuses and a shocking 55% reporting emotional abuses by household grownups – levels two and four times higher, respectively, than those of similar 2014 survey. Teens are several times more likely to be bullied and injured at home by parents than at school or from online encounters – surprising, since the CDC’s definition of peer bullying is broader than for parents’ emotional abuse.

The CDC’s abuse finding, highlighted in its survey summary, should have set off loud alarms in America’s mental health and institutional communities

Increased domestic abuse, including shootings (at least eight times more children and youth are shot to death by household grownups than at school), relate to the stresses of rising substance use disorder and the pandemic. Parents who lost their jobs are twice as likely to be abusive, the CDC finds.  

Given more beating, hitting, kicking, abusive swearing and name-calling inflicted by parents and household adults that exceed normal family disagreements, it’s understandable that more teens are depressed and anxious.

The CDC’s abuse finding, highlighted in its survey summary, should have set off loud alarms in America’s mental health and institutional communities well aware of decades of consistent research linking childhood abuses to adolescents’ poor mental health and tragic outcomes.

Instead, a curious silence ensued. The Surgeon General’s report on youth mental health mentioned abuse only obliquely — and his second report not at all. Instead, the nation’s top health official touted dubious social-media studies about which reviews warn of “considerable caveats due to the methodological limitations.” Getting scant response beyond a few scattered news squibs, the CDC dropped the abuse issue entirely in its follow-up 2023 report.

This is unconscionable. Full analysis of the CDC’s massive survey data conclusively shows social media is a trivial issue. Parents’ and household grownups’ abuses are the major factor closely associated with every serious teenage trouble — a reality institutional America clearly does not want to engage.

The correlation is a reverse one: depression drives social media use, not the other way around

Compared to non-abused teenagers, the most abused teens report 3.5 times more sadness, 4.5 times more depression, nine times more suicide contemplation, and 24 times more suicide attempts. Teens abused at home were four times more likely to be bullied at school or online. They reported four times more alcohol and drug use, six times more dating violence and school fights and a dozen times more weapons-carrying.

LGBTQ+ girls report more than three-quarters of the abuse by household grownups (76%). Of their abused cohort, 65% reported frequent depression and 27% reported suicide attempts. At the “low” end, 46% of heterosexual boys reported abuses, and of their non-abused fraction, just 10% reported frequent depression and 1% attempted suicide.

Authorities evaded these disturbing findings and stampeded to scapegoat social media. The CDC numbers do show a correlation between more social media use and more sadness and depression. The reason, however, reinforces the Statistics 101 caution against assuming correlation proves causation – especially when a gigantic factor like abuse is omitted.

The complication – glaring when parental abuse, social media use, depression, and suicide attempts are compared directly – is that abused teens report both more depression and more social media use. The correlation is a reverse one: depression drives social media use, not the other way around.

The CDC’s and Pew’s real findings should derail Congress’s and legislatures’ stampede to ban or restrict teen social media use

The most abused teenagers are two to four times more likely than non-abused teens to obtain medical and mental health services online. These connections help explain why youths who use social media one to five or more hours per day report many fewer suicide attempts than teens who never or rarely use social media.

The Pew Research Center study of 1,300 13-17-year-olds similarly found that, “80% said social media gives them some level of connection to what is going on in their friends’ lives”, “67% said social media reassures them that they have people to support them during tough times, and 58% said it makes them feel more accepted.” LGBTQ teens were the most likely to use social media to find support. Pew found very few teens think social media harms them personally, but many more imagine it must harm others.

The CDC’s and Pew’s real findings should derail Congress’s and legislatures’ stampede to ban or restrict teen social media use.

Along with failing to incorporate abuses by grownups into discussions of teenage mental health, authorities and commentators rarely contextualize distressing real-life trends. For example, deaths from suicides, homicides, unintentional drug overdoses and gunshots among teens ages 12-19 rose from 4,500 in 2000 and 4,800 in 2010 to 7,400 in 2022, a rate increase of 60%, generating understandable alarms.

Not understandable is the official and media silence surrounding the three-fold larger increase in such deaths among adults of ages to be parents of teenagers (30 to 59), from 35,000 in 2000 and 54,000 in 2010 to 109,000 in 2022, a rate increase of 175% to a level four times higher than among teens. Troubling, undiscussed trends among parent-aged adults accompany large increases in adult depression over the period.

The best information examined in full context shows we don’t have a “teenage mental health crisis.” We don’t even understand what that is, given massive youthful improvements in behaviors (led by supposedly depressed girls) that shouldn’t be happening if young people were seriously mentally disturbed. Social media moguls, though no angels, are not the problem.

Rather, we face a crisis of more troubled and abusive grownups – themselves stressed by untreated substance use disorders and pandemic-related troubles – and oblivious authorities. More depression and anxiety are normal responses to the self-aggrandizement of America’s institutional professionals and leadership seeking easy culture-war scapegoats instead of confronting – or even acknowledging – disturbing real crises.

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