It’s generally accepted that the teenage years — no matter how you slice it — are a grueling, morale-busting slog for pretty much everyone. (We’re still recovering.)
But times, they may be a-worsening for youth — especially girls. A “steady stream of research” suggests that far more girls than boys are battling major depression in their almost-adult years — and the growing psychological dependence on Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and other social media may be making young women more vulnerable to mental illness.
We find this pretty alarming, but sadly, not surprising. Even as adults, we feel a certain unease at being at the mercy of the electronic despot in our purse. We miss the golden era when social media was simply a wall phone (with a long, curly, tangled cord snaking under a locked bathroom door). It would either ring or not, which meant we didn’t always know exactly what peers thought of us — or if they thought of us at all. And we repeat: We are adults.
Psychologist and writer Catherine Steiner-Adair says that women and girls are “continually bombarded by media messages, dominant culture, humor and even political figures about how they look — no matter how smart, gifted or passionate they are.”
Texting, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat can all intensify that painfully critical focus on looks and what peers might think, Steiner-Adair says.
A group of psychiatrists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — including one Dr. Ramin Mojtabai — studied the rising rate of depression among teens over the past decade. Analyzing federal data from interviews with more than 172,000 teenagers, the researchers discovered an alarming uptick in youth depression from 2005 to 2014 — coinciding with a surge in social media apps.
The most disturbing breakdown of the data: If the results reflect mental health trends in all American adolescents, that means there could be about half a million more seriously depressed young people than pre-2005. Worst of all, three-fourths of the depressed kids in the study identified as girls.
Mojtabai reports that girls “are more likely to use these new means of communication, so may be exposed to more cyberbullying or other negative effects of this latest social media.”
Steiner-Adair agrees completely with this hypothesis.
“We know girls are very vulnerable to defining themselves in comparison to others,” she says. Her young female patients report that they derive their “entire identity” from their phone. They obsess over “tags, likes, Instagram photos and Snapchat stories.”
Steiner-Adair is pushing for schools to take a proactive stance and help teens recognize that social media can be detrimental when it comes to their self-esteem. She says that a course in mindfulness might reduce feelings of being left out or judged and could help adolescents reduce their anxiety and depression.
This is your brain; this is your brain on tech — that’s the kind of teaching Steiner-Adair advocates. Many teens consume social media nonstop during their waking hours, and mindfulness lessons can help young people battle the compulsion to check their phones constantly.
Hey, you know who else could benefit from mindfulness lessons? (*sheepishly raising our hands*)
Most of the adults we know could use some heavy-duty mindfulness training. Not sure when exactly we all became tethered to our cellphones, but we know it’s not pretty — inside or out. But what’s the answer?
Honestly, we’re not sure “mindfulness” lessons are enough to combat the far-reaching consequences of online snubs and all-out cyberbullying. We’re skeptical, frankly, that most teens would be willing to embrace mindfulness instead of the latest Snapchat filter. Because we’re not doing such a great job of it, either — and we’re grown-ups, supposedly in possession of some self-discipline.
If there’s a teenaged boy or girl in your life, be on the lookout for signs of social media addiction or changes in behavior that might indicate depression: changes in sleep patterns, appetite, energy levels or a growing inability to concentrate (or care).
And while you’re at it? Put down your phone and go for a walk with your kid. We will too.