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No life, No Hope, No Future: Why Are Young Americans So Miserable?
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No life, No Hope, No Future: Why Are Young Americans So Miserable?

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“Something in modern life is undermining mental health,” Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University wrote. This is definitely so as more and more surveys show American youth are increasingly unhappy, depressed, and even suicidal. It seems that no one is going to make America great again. What's the matter with kids today?

Numerous studies revealed a rise in Americans 12 to 25 saying they are unhappy.

As Monitoring the Future – a continuing study of American youth since 1991 – shows, since 2012, the proportion of 8th and 10th graders who say they feel unhappy has crept up from 13% to 18%. According to the General Social Survey, the same indicator for 18- to 25-year-olds points to a 6% shift – from 11 to 17% in roughly the same time.

The research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, based on the analysis of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (tracking mental health issues in Americans since 1971), says more young Americans are experiencing serious psychological distress, major depression, and suicidal thoughts or tendencies in the last decade than older generations. Whereas a similar study from the American Psychological Association asserts the number of those Americans has more than doubled over the past decade.

A study led by Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor, who analyzed the responses of over 77,000 college students surveyed from 1938 through 2007, finds that five times as many high school and college students are dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues as youth of the same age did that were surveyed during the era of the Great Depression.

Among both high schoolers and young adults, incidences of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness –culminating in major depressive episodes – have risen substantially. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 70% of teenagers think anxiety and depression are major problems among their peers, easily outpacing bullying or drug addiction.

In the worst cases, these feelings may translate into thoughts of, or plans for, suicide. According to the research by the Children’s Hospital Association, the number of children 5 to 17 being admitted to hospitals for self-harm and suicide attempts doubled between 2008 and 2015. Even more sobering are the rising suicide rates themselves.

Tony Jurich, a professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University, told the Portland Press Herald, “Teens think they are invincible, so when they feel psychological pain, they are more apt to feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and the belief that they have no control over their lives.” Jurich calls these feelings of hopelessness and helplessness “the Molotov cocktail that triggers teen suicide.”

According to the CDC, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year old Americans. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one child in 100,000 aged from 10 to 14 dies by suicide each year (7 and 12.7 in 100,000 among youth ages 15 to 19 and adults ages 20-24 accordingly).

Since 2007, the homicide rate among teenagers has declined, but the suicide rate has increased, meaning that for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, young people are more likely to kill themselves than they are one another.

CDC Wonder

Last year’s depression study report by BlueCross BlueShield shows that depression is affecting millions of Americans among all age groups. According to the report, diagnoses of major depressive disorder have risen 33% since 2013. Whereas this mental health condition now affects an estimated 9 million commercially insured Americans, teen depression rates are increasing even more quickly.

NSDUH

All these and other studies’ findings made the researchers from Berkeley Institute for the Future of Young Americans state that over a third of American adults ages 18 to 64 will develop an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. The authors of another study found that approximately 32% of 13 to 17-year-olds have met criteria for an anxiety disorder – which is the most common mental disorder among today’s adolescents in the U.S. – at at least one point in their lives.

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Disturbing statistics:

  • Every 100 minutes a teen takes his own life.
  • Young people attempt suicide at an alarmingly high rate: Among 15-24 year olds, there is one suicide for every 100-200 attempts.
  • About 20% of all teens experience depression before they reach adulthood.
  • Between 10 to 15% suffer from symptoms at any one time.
  • Only 30% of depressed teens are being treated for it.

Main causes of depression

Even though major depression in adolescents, as well as adults, can stem from a variety of causes, today’s teens may face issues that were unknown to past generations.

A primary cause is… social media

Teens become depressed when they compare their lives unfavorably to the people they follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Interestingly (and disappointingly) enough, based on Cigna’s U.S. loneliness index,  social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) that is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7).

Moreover, according to the report, “Generation Zers (adults ages 18-22) surveyed are significantly more likely than any other generation to say they experience the feelings described in the statements associated with loneliness (e.g., feeling alone, isolated, left out, that there is no one they can talk to, etc.). In fact, more than half of Gen Zers (adults ages 18-22) identify with 10 of the 11 feelings associated with loneliness. Feeling like people around them are not really with them (69%), feeling shy (69%), and feeling like no one really knows them well (68%) are among the most common feelings experienced by those in the Generation Z (adults ages 18-22).”

Cigna’s U.S. loneliness index / multivu.com

Watch this video about the influence of social media on our daily lives and feelings of happiness:

Another reason that more and more teens feel discomforted with their lives is closely connected with the first one – smartphone usage. Excessive use of technology damages relationships, education, and extracurricular activities. Since email and texting replace face-to-face interaction, it inevitably leads to a decline in socialization. This argument makes us remember with sympathy that today's teens are the first to grow up in an electronics-dominated world.

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In September 2017, the author of Generation Me and iGen Jean M. Twenge wrote an article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” for the Atlantic.

“What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent,” she said, pondering why teen behavior has changed. “I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet.”

The Monitoring the Future survey has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried 8th and 10th-graders since 1991 about their leisure time (non-screen and screen activities) and their feeling of happiness.

The results are staggering: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media.

“I have students who tell me they have 500 ‘friends,’ but when they’re in need, there’s no one,” Jagdish Khubchandani, a health science professor at Ball State University told USA Today.

The research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that teens are not sleeping as much as previous generations because they tend to be late-night screen addicts, which not only keeps them up later but also has been shown to disrupt sleep cycles.

Spending too much time on screens and not getting outside enough make today’s adolescents suffer from nature deficit disorder – a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. Hence, they experience a wide range of behavioral and mental health problems.

“Cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations compared with older generations,” said study author Jean Twenge in a statement, adding that the sharpest increase in mental health issues was after 2011. Around this time, opioid use hit its peak in the US when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced overdoses were at “epidemic levels.”

Essentially 100% of 18- to 24-year-olds are on social media. 54% think they spend too much time on their cellphone; 72% of teens say their phone is sometimes the first thing they look at upon waking up.

This, Twenge argues in her book iGen, explains a lot about why they are unhappy. Using several national surveys, Twenge argues that screen-using activities are linked to indicators of depression and unhappiness. For example, she finds that kids using devices more than three hours a day are 30% more likely to have an indicator of suicidality.

“The sudden, sharp rise in depressive symptoms occurred at almost exactly the same time that smartphones became ubiquitous and in-person interaction plummeted,” Twenge writes. “That seems like too much of a coincidence for the trends not to be connected.”

Other researchers have pushed back on Twenge’s analysis. One study looked at college and high-school students' social media use, and found no relationship between frequency and depression, except among teen girls, for whom depression led to social media, not vice-versa. Another analysis, using Twenge's data, found that the relationship between social-media use and well-being was significant, but very weak in its effect.

Bradford Wilcox, the sociologist, noted in an essay at Politico that time online is negatively correlated with time socializing offline, and hypothesized that the rise of “Netflix and Chill” may have replaced the kind of in-person interaction – including sex and marriage – that facilitates happiness.

Even though the majority of teens surveyed by Pew said that social media helps them feel more connected and offers them support, Pew found that 45% of teens feel “overwhelmed” by drama on social media, and 43% feel pressure to post only positive content – experiences that could contribute to unhappiness.

The correlations between depression and smartphone use are too strong to ignore, which makes us suggest that more parents should be telling their kids to put down their phone. Even Steve Jobs limited his kids’ use of the devices he brought into the world.

Teen relationships

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Teenagers are often considered the most unfettered and outgoing age group. However, according to the Pew analysis of the American Time Use Survey, today’s average teen spends about 16 minutes less per day socializing than ten years ago. The average teenage boy spends about as much time eating as he does socializing, while the average teenage girl spends about as much time on her homework.

The number of times per week teens “go out” without parents has slipped, falling by half a day to a day per week on average. High-school seniors now spend an hour less per day socializing today than they did in the 1980s.

Teens are also less adventurous in their socializing.  Twelfth-graders in recent years are substantially less likely to have a driver’s license (11 percentage point drop since 1999), have tried alcohol (14 points), have ever been on a date (18 points), or have ever had sex (2 points), the research from psychologist Jean Twenge shows.

Dating has fallen precipitously in recent years, as smartphones and screens have become more popular.

The study, published in the journal Child Development, found that between 1976 and 1979, 86% of high school seniors had gone on a date; between 2010 and 2015 only 63% had.

Teens have also reported a steady decline in sexual activity in recent decades, as the portion of high school students who have had sex fell from 54% in 1991 to 41% in 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics.

Young Americans are making fewer connections which give our lives meaning, demonstrating an anti-sociality very unlike their predecessors.

Take marriage: 9% of 18- to 25-year-olds were married in 2018, according to the Current Population Survey, compared to 13% 10 years ago and 16% 20 years ago.

In 2007, before the Great Recession, just 30% of men ages 18 to 34 lived with a parent. Today, 34% do so. Likewise, the share of women ages 18 to 34 who are living at home rose from 24% in 2007 to 27% in 2017. In fact, now, for the first time in more than a century, young adults as a whole are more likely to live at home with their parents than to be married or live with a partner.

Whereas a decline in dangerous social activities may be a good thing, what about a reduction in work and church attendance?

According to Pew, teens spend 23 fewer minutes working for pay during the school year compared to ten years ago, and 15% fewer have summer jobs compared to twenty years ago.

One survey found that 13% of teens identified as atheist, more than twice the average for those over 18. Religious attendance has dropped too, with just 30% of young adults going to church at least monthly in 2018 according to the GSS.

These changes strongly explain the drop in young adults’ happiness, social scientists Lyman Stone and Bradford Wilcox wrote, especially when you take the “sex drought” into account.

“Americans are offsetting some of the lost community and companionship of spouses and churches with closer ties to friends,” they write. “But those friendships don't give young Americans the sex life that made previous generations happier.”

Academic pressure

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Many teens experience some degree of academic pressure. Meanwhile, an uncertain economy and tough competition for college and graduate school make that pressure even worse.

As mentioned in one New York Times’ article, Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, says that “there’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”

Pew reported that 61% feeling “a lot” of pressure about “getting good grades.” By comparison, just 28% feel a lot of pressure to fit in socially; just 8% feel a lot of pressure to either have sex or participate in religious activities.

According to the Current Population Survey, 2008 was the first year that a majority of Americans 18 to 25 were enrolled in or had graduated from college (today, about 55% are). Pew found that of the teens they surveyed, 59% expect to go to college.

95% of teens say it is important to them to have a job or career they enjoy, and 51% say it is important to have a lot of money. Anyways, both groups will almost certainly require a college degree.

It is hard to doubt that the increasing “do or die” of education plays a role in the unhappiness of high schoolers. This is especially true as they increasingly derive meaning from having a good career: while 95% say a career matters, 47% say marriage matters, and just 39% say having kids matters.

PEW Research Center

The rising social and economic importance of college has some explanatory power for unhappiness among young adults as well. 39% of college students experience symptoms of depression; 24% seek psychotherapy, which is not surprising as there’s another factor that may explain why post-grads are unhappy: $1.5 trillion in student debt.

There’s no doubt debt is linked to less marriage, later home-buying, and later and less childrearing, and worse mental health, all factors which make young adults unhappy.

Necessity to belong somewhere

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Numerous studies show that a low sense of belonging is a predictor of depression.

For instance, the research published in one journal “Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes” revealed that “lower sense of belonging was significantly associated with greater severity of depression, hopelessness, suicidal ideation, and history of prior suicide attempt(s).” 

According to another study, a sense of belonging is related to one’s sense of how meaningful life is. Lambert and colleagues demonstrated that college students experimentally primed with belongingness perceive greater meaning in life.

Today’s young Americans have a necessity to be a part of a bigger something.

61% have a favorable view of the word “socialism,” 73% support universal healthcare, and 50% would prefer to live in a socialist country.

“Movements are, yeah, about causes and about progress and beliefs and feelings, but the strength of movements comes from social ties and peer pressure and relationships,” a young organizer told New York magazine in a recent feature. “People are craving this. Your social world intersecting with your politics. A world of our own.”

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Author: USA Really