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Kindling a Fire: What’s to Blame for the Teen Mental Health Crisis?

Kindling a Fire: What’s to Blame for the Teen Mental Health Crisis?

This two-part series examines the growing teen mental health crisis and highlights potential explanations for the phenomenon: social media and the practice of modern parenting.

Part I: Is Social Media to Blame for the Teen Mental Health Crisis?

A troubling new report on the teen mental health crisis has generated considerable concern among parents, educators, and policymakers – and considerable debate about its potential causes.

According to a February 2023 release from the Centers for Disease Control, nearly three in five U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, representing a 60% increase and the highest level reported over the past decade. The number of teen boys reporting similar levels of hopelessness increased nearly 40% over the same decade. Worse yet, almost one in three girls seriously considered attempting suicide—also up nearly 60% from a decade ago (though still well below male suicide rates overall). And the increase cannot be explained away as merely the product of self-reporting or overdiagnosis; even objective metrics like emergency room visits for attempted self-harm have skyrocketed.

What has caused this troubling increase? Interestingly, it does not appear that Covid and its societal consequences significantly changed the trajectory of this trend. While Covid unquestionably caused enormous disruptions for teens, many indicators of teen distress have been rising for the better part of a decade – long before Covid.

Experts have offered a number of possible explanations beyond the pandemic: smartphone addiction, social media use, stressful achievement culture, intensive parenting styles, new norms of discussing mental health, and even the pervasive sense that the modern world is simply full of bad news and teens have good reason to be distressed.

As with all complex social phenomena, the causes of the teen mental health crisis are many. No single factor is determinative, and there is some truth in each of the explanations proffered above.

But two trends stand out: personal technology and childhood independence. This month, I will offer thoughts on the impact of smartphones and social media. Next month, I will address childhood autonomy and how parents and schools can help empower students to find success on their own terms.

The notion that social media is fueling the current teen mental health crisis has been most forcefully argued by Jonathan Haidt, a New York University professor. Haidt noticed that the increase in teen depression and self-harm appeared to start rising suddenly around 2012, and most significantly among teen girls (who tend to be heavy social media users). This surge coincides with the widespread adoption of social media.

While this correlation is intriguing, it remained unclear whether social media was the driving cause of soaring teen depression. But an increasing number of studies has shown that social media is at least an important cause, if not the only cause, of teen distress. For example, studies examining when Facebook reached certain college campuses or when high-speed internet service was delivered to different regions of Canada and Spain, suggest that the arrival of social media led to sharp increases in teen mental health issues in those locations. And some randomly assigned experiments are beginning to reach similar conclusions in controlled settings. Finally, leaked documents from Instagram appear to confirm the company suspected its social media app was harmful to teen girls in particular. The evidence remains mixed, but the case against social media is certainly building.

Why is social media such a potentially powerful force in a teenager’s life? There are at least three reasons: (1) it is algorithmically designed to be addictive, especially to teens whose brains are still developing impulse control; (2) it promotes intense social comparison to a limitless pool of online peers, preying on the teen brain’s intense desire for peer approval; and (3) it displaces more productive in-person activities and relationships proven to promote life satisfaction.

Given those challenges, how can parents and schools respond? One thing is certain: we cannot pretend social media does not exist. Hoping our children will not use TikTok or Instagram until college is simply not realistic. In fact, they will likely need to be proficient users of some social media to succeed in today’s world. And social media is not all bad; it can make new connections, allow for individual expression, and provide a platform to share valuable information.

That said, there are a few ideas that may be worth considering:

  • Delay getting your child a smartphone for as long as possible, especially for girls. If you need to be in contact, get your child a “dumb phone” or a smartwatch. Just as cars are useful tools but not safe for 11-year-olds to operate, smartphones need an age minimum given their capacity to manipulate the developing adolescent brain. 
  • Enforce personal technology limits and seek balance with in-person activities, prioritizing connections to nature and with friends.
  • Teach responsible use in a way that acknowledges the good and the bad of social media and allows students to co-author restrictions.
  • Most of all, partner with other parents and educators to establish shared tech use norms. It is a collective action problem that requires collective coordination to manage. If every other student in your child’s grade has a smartphone or social media account, the sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) is overpowering. Band together with other parents and ensure your child’s peer group is on the same page about limitations and acceptable use.

The challenge with these steps is finding the balance between setting clear boundaries and empowering your child’s sense of independence. When it comes to social media, my sense is we need more boundaries. But in other areas of childhood, we need more independence. More on that last month.


Part II: What’s to Blame for the Teen Mental Health Crisis? 

Last month I examined the growing teen mental health crisis and highlighted a potential explanation for the phenomenon: social media. Yet, for all the deserved attention, social media cannot plausibly be argued as the only factor fueling our current predicament. There are simply too many contributing factors, including – as painful as it may be for parents like me to admit – the practice of modern parenting itself.

One version of modern parenting in particular has come under much scrutiny: hyper-vigilant “helicopter parenting.” As the name implies, helicopter parents are ever-present and overprotective – constantly hovering over their children, seeking to curate their every experience, and working to prevent any struggle, danger, or discomfort. To mix metaphors, helicopter parents seek to pave the jungle for their children rather than equip them with sturdy boots.

Almost no one voluntarily self-identifies as a helicopter parent. But I encourage you to engage in some brutal self-examination. When was the last time you let your child independently attempt a difficult or risky task – and fail – without intervening? I admit, as a father, I am not eager to publicly disclose my own answer. The truth is almost every parent reading this article has practiced “overparenting” at one point or another.

To be fair, most mistakes made by helicopter parents (or their relatives, “snowplow parents”) come from a place of genuine love. Many parents feel childhood today is more fraught and dangerous, thus warranting their more protective parenting.

But when it comes to child safety, the statistics tell another story. By most measures, the U.S. has never been safer. Child abductions, missing children reports, child pedestrian accidents, and child playground injuries are much lower than 30 years ago. Overall crime statistics, even with the uptick in 2020-21, are significantly lower than in the 1980s and 1990s when most current parents grew up.

Despite these trends, many kids are less independent than at any time in recent history. Compared to 30 years ago, the percentage of high school seniors who obtained a driver’s license, went on a date, held a job, and even tried alcohol have all declined significantly. There is similar evidence showing a decline in unstructured socializing time by teens and unstructured free play by younger children. And colleges routinely describe freshmen as less independent, resourceful, and self-reliant than ever before.

The decline of childhood independence along with the increase in teen mental health challenges has led some experts to conclude that the issues are linked. And there is evidence to support this theory. Emerging research suggests that over-intensive parenting may lead to increased anxiety and depression, decreased well-being, self-regulation, and self-efficacy, and poorer academic outcomes.

Many educators can confirm from experience that “helicopter parenting” deprives students of developing resilience, self-reliance, and independence – a skill needed to build their confidence. When parents are overly involved in their kids’ lives, they unwittingly communicate a lack of belief in their children’s capabilities, and as a result, children become anxious and afraid without parental involvement.

Similarly, helicopter parents take away the opportunity for children to practice managing distress. Studies have found that individuals experiencing a moderate amount of adversity have better mental health than those who had too much or not enough hardship in their lives. In other words, there is a sweet spot of distress parents should expose their children to: not too much, but definitely not too little either.

Remember, mental health is not the absence of distress; it is the ability to manage normal distress. We must let our kids exercise their stress management muscles because preventing any discomfort or unhappiness is a detriment to the development of healthy coping skills.

And while it’s easy to criticize overparenting, what can we do to avoid its negative consequences? There is no shortage of advice on this topic, but I have two specific recommendations:

1. Allow for more free, unsupervised, and even risky play by children. Free play has long been known to be a valuable psychosocial aspect of child development, not just a source of fun. Psychologists Peter Gray and David Bjorklund have forcefully argued that free play promotes mental health in critical ways by allowing children to develop executive function, build confidence, overcome danger, exert self-control, regulate emotions, and experience joy. These effects are often maximized when parents allow kids to play with limited adult supervision and expose themselves to age-appropriate risks (climbing trees, dealing with sharp objects, using controlled fire, etc.).

In fact, a recent meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that regular physical activity – especially when unsupervised by adults – led to substantial reductions in depressive symptoms among teens.

2. Aspire to “good enough” parenting, not perfectionism. To foster opportunities for intrepid independence in children, parents should adopt the right mindset and model it for their children. More than 50 years ago, Dr. Donald Winnicott contended that a “good enough” parent is actually better for child development than a “perfect” parent. A “good enough” parent must still love their child deeply and provide care and support; neglect is never good.

But crucially, the “good enough” parent provides gradually less support as the child grows – perhaps helping only 30% of the time the child believes he or she needs assistance in later years. Notably, parents may get it wrong sometimes in trying to achieve this balance, but that failure can also benefit their children.

As Winnicott explained, “[a parent’s] failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities. [The parent’s] imperfections better prepare them for an imperfect world.” In other words, by not being perfect – or constantly hovering and waiting to intervene – a parent can help their child build the important skills of frustration tolerance, stress management, and self-reliance. And, ultimately, happiness.

Next time your child needs help tying a shoe or wants you to intervene with a teacher, try offering verbal encouragement rather than direct assistance. You might find that the less you do, the more you help.

"Kindling a Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This is a two-part series that ran in the May and June 2023 editions of the publication.