The real cause of the teen mental health crisis
It's too easy to lay all the blame on social media
In a new report this week, the CDC found that nearly one in three American high school girls considered suicide in 2021. That’s a 60% increase in the last 10 years. With more teenage girls using mental health services and taking medication than ever before, something is clearly going very wrong.
Many blame social media. Psychologists such as Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt, not incorrectly, point to rising screen times, social comparison, and too many hours spent on apps which focus on physical appearance. They take aim at the likes of Instagram and TikTok, and demand stricter regulation, whilst recognising that other factors should be considered.
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Social media has certainly played a part in fuelling this crisis. Platforms like Instagram and Meta collect and store personal data, using it to create customised algorithms, or even selling it to advertisers who then target users through personalised ads. For users who are already vulnerable — like teenage girls facing all the psychological pressures attached to coming-of-age — this can be disastrous for mental health.
Online, teen girls often end up being inundated with an infinite stream of face-morphing filters, FaceTuned images, TikToks, Reels, Stories, ads and sponsorships — all the time telling them how to be prettier and more desirable. No doubt that has an impact. In fact, in 2021 internal research leaked to the Wall Street Journal revealed that Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three girls.
But the roots of this crisis run far deeper than Instagram. Today, a vast, interconnected network of industries — from social media to wellness to entertainment to cosmetics to pharmaceuticals — exploits and profits from girls’ pain and unique vulnerabilities. For those feeling lonely, there are unlimited swipes on dating service Bumble BFF for £7.99 a week; for the insecure, there is ‘baby botox’ starting from £275; for the anxious, 10% off the first month of online therapy with the promo code ‘SLAY!’
This leaves us with an entire ecosystem feeding off various female pathologies. Through this network, industries not only prey on the normal insecurities of girlhood but manufacture new fears, too. Namely, exploiting girls’ natural longing for connection, belonging and validation to sell superficial, short-term substitutes in return, from gimmicky wellness products to baby botox to mental health medications.
Girls today shouldn’t feel anxious about what’s wrong with them. They should be angry that their teenage struggles are being tapped into, their pain exacerbated, and their mental health issues made marketable. It should be no surprise that Gen Z girls’ crisis is getting worse. Tragically, their despair and disempowerment is a billion-dollar industry that doesn’t look like bursting any time soon.
Nothing here to convince me that social media is not the root cause of these problems. The “interconnected industries” mentioned would not have the far reach and influence if it were not for the social media and its algorithms.
I completely agree. The author wants to blame some vague ‘interconnected network of industries’ who are ‘preying’ on girls. Also known as capitalism, which simply responds to the demand created by other factors. In the author’s desired Marxist nanny state, with the evil ‘network’ shut down, girls will thrive in a socially cohesive utopia! Problem solved!
”Also known as capitalism, which simply responds to the demand created by other factors.”
You are not allowed to sell your organs – does this mean we do not live in Capitalism?
Evil systems harming citizens are not ‘Capitalism’ they are government neglecting to protect the children. If you are broke the government will feed you, if you break your leg the government will get it set, if you are a child the government will educate you, if a conman wants to sell you empty boxes they say something is inside – if Ponzie wants to sell you a get rich quick…the government should protect you.
When it does not protect innocents it needs fixing – and that is not your terrifying ‘Socialism’ But the function of government – to protect the citizens where it does not take their freedom in exchange at undo ratios.
These Per verts and Ped o Corporations need to stop harming.
Congratulations on slaying the straw man you created. Did i ever say anything advocating lawless capitalism? But before you can blame evil corporations, you do need to make a coherent case. Calling them names wont cut it. The author of this piece did no actual research so doesn’t even know that one of Haidt’s books was actually about the harms of over-coddling. How over-protection has left children much more vulnerable and less resilient. That would contradict both the notion that Haidt only blames social media, and the notion that more coddling is the solution.
I just don’t believe the stats. You are telling me that when milk and honey were flowing freely 1 in 5 girls would contemplate suicide and now the figure is 1/3.
Having 2 girls myself means that I have a 2/3 chance one of them will contemplate suicide.
That to me is just nonsense, unless the “contemplating” bar is so low that even saying in jest “if that happens, I’ll kill myself” gets you onto the stats.
How you ask the question really matters. At the school where my mother taught, decades ago, somebody came by and tried to do a study about mental health. They discovered, to their horror, that over 95% of the people in the second form said they ‘had thought about suicide’ in the last 3 months. Turns out the 5% were slackers. Second Form had studied Romeo and Juliet that term, and had to write papers discussing the suicidal pair.
you should probably talk to more teenagers ! My son tells me that those figures are not far off – and 4 of his cohort have killed themselves in the past 7 years …..
Chris, I don’t know where you live, but I don’t know of anyone who has committed suicide in a school of 1200+ pupils.
‘The plural of anecdote is not data.’ Here’s another anecdote for you: the teenage son of one of my best friends committed suicide (some decades ago now).
Sounds like your son needs a different set of cohorts.
You hit on the fundamental problem of observational studies like this. They almost never tell you anything because apples are being compared to oranges. The questions may be asked slightly differently. The words may have different connotations over time. The people doing the asking may do it in different contexts. The subset of kids who are being interviewed can be different in many different ways. Their willingness to be open and honest will differ based on changes in societal and peer norms. This kind of study is garbage. Meaningless. I ignore everything except actual suicide deaths and I didn’t notice her bothering to look those numbers up.
One in ten teens is obese according to 2020 statistics, and probably worse when the 2022 report comes out. Kids get very little exercise. They are encouraged to be afraid of pretty much everything so they stay close to home and fail to develop common life skills that would give them confidence. Add that to the social media issues and it is no surprise our young people are seriously struggling—both male and female.
Too many fathers out of the household and too many woman out of the home.
Loss of religious belief in the West.
Loss of faith in Western customs.
And yes, social media has thrown gas on the fire.
The destruction of the family unit. Colonization of the West by our own governments and corps. Get rid of the dads. Push women away from their kids. Leaves kids vulnerable to the colonisers. Job done and some of us saw it 40 years ago.
These industries have been there for a long time. I remember when I was a teenager seeing ads for make-up and ultra thin models (Twiggy, anyone?) aimed at girls all the time, along with ads showing other girls with shed loads of friends going out to discos and coffee shops. The only difference now is the ubiquity of social media, so I’m not convinced by the writer’s arguments.
My girlfriend took no discernable interest in any of those things. But then, she had a handsome young boyfriend. We can make a difference.
Not sure the only difference is social media …. as a commenter above pointed out, today more young people are overweight than then, so there’s more of a tension between what you are and what you see. Then, it was models that you saw in magazines or on TV – another world really – whereas now it seems all these ‘ordinary’ people on social media, with the help of filters, or cosmetic surgery, are presenting as flawless. The ante has been upped.
I think a couple of other things were protective for teenagers then – one was family structures and responsibilities: families were larger, and houses were smaller, with teenagers having a responsibility for looking after young children or helping with housekeeping … they felt more part of a family unit as part of their identity. Quite likely they went to church on Sundays and had that as part of their identity. Plus, I’m not sure if this is the case, but perhaps more children then had more structured activities, like learning a musical instrument, or sports training … something which was part of your identity which had nothing to do with looks. The worst thing you could do for kids these days is leave them spending a lot of time alone in their rooms with their ‘screens’.
Why is this author attacking Jonathan Haidt? She’s portrayed him as a straw man – alleging that he’s somehow unaware of factors beyond social media. I suspect all she knows about his work is from another journalist writing about him. She should read one of his books and learn about all the nuances he discusses in great detail. This article is just clickbait garbage.
If you read what the author has written without prejudice, i think you’d be very hard pressed to see it as anything like an “attack” on Jonathan Haidt. She’s simply pointing towards his analysis, which is not only a perfectly normal thing to do but adds context to her piece. I welcome it, and think it has all the right intentions and i’m not in the least naive about all this (e.g. writing to enhance career, etc.). Isn’t that what all writers do?
If it widens the debate about something that should concern us all, why would anyone wish to attack it, as you’ve done?
Clickbait garbage? Rein it in, for goodness sake.
Agreed. The most important thing is what is happening to the girls, or at least what is purported to be happening. Generally, I am grateful for the brief insights described in the article.
Sounds like you should read Haidt’s work too, unless you prefer clickbait journalism to academic analysis by highly trained psychologists. It’s nothing like the straw man she portrays. And no, what she’s doing is not a good thing, because she’s steering people away from more sophisticated analysis toward vague notions of capitalist conspiracy. Haidt would say that what she’s pointing to as the main issue – the ‘ecosystem’ feeding off girls’ insecurities – has always existed, though it evolves with the times. If you want to understand why something changed dramatically in the last 10 years, then don’t point to something that has always existed as a cause. That just doesn’t cut it.
Quite simply, she doesn’t portray Haidt as a straw man. Your claim, as that of others, is nonsense. It follows that the rest of your comment is irrelevant.
Because you’ve never read Haidt, you gullibly believe that he lays all blame on social media. Read his books. You’re not going to become better informed reading this nonsense. And if you want to prove my claim is nonsense, make an actual argument. I’ve shown how she grossly misrepresents his views. Show me how that’s wrong – don’t just insult people.
I bet Steve has read Haidt. I have. Very interesting guy. This author probably hasn’t read much more than about him, which is a pity. But I’m with Steve in thinking she wasn’t really attacking him. I don’t buy her thinly veiled capitalist conspiracy theory any more than you do though.
Not sure she was attacking JH that much but welcome the reference to pretty much anything JH does. From recollection didn’t Haidt refer to not letting his own kids have social media until young adulthood, but also crucially they get sent on summer camps and have to learn social skills kids just won’t if living in a social media bedroom environment?
Slightly separate – I think he also wrote about the importance of kids learning to organise and play together without coaches. So many kids get packed off to a sports session run by coaches who do all the organising for them. Yet (and bit rose-tinted here I’m sure) didn’t we just go to the park and organise our own games/matches amongst ourselves, thus developing social skills you just won’t if all that defaults to an adult? Haidht refers to the loss in social skills from the parental trend in sending kids to organised clubs rather than just letting them out to play. (I’ve over simplified this a bit but I’m sure the general point captured). Feels intuitively correct doesn’t it.
So it’s never one thing, which may be what the Author is trying to convey. Haidht would agree with that.
Yes – precisely my point – its never just one thing and Haidt has said as much. So this author claiming that Haidt has it wrong is simply creating a straw man to knock down. The real reason of course is that Haidt is conservative and lefty journalists simply can’t tolerate explanations that don’t blame everything on evil capitalism. In fact – having written extensively on the harms of over-coddling – Haidt has become the sworn enemy of those who think more coddling is the answer.
I’m not sure Haidt falls into either over simplistic Left or Right categories, at least in the way these associations are used in the US (which is quite different from the UK). And I reckon he’d resist the labelling too. I think he’s much more thoughtful issue by issue.
I agree with that. I meant that he was perceived as conservative now – in much the same way many people on the center left now find themselves painted as right wingers. I once had “The Coddling of the American Mind” sitting on my counter when my GenZ progressive daughter saw it. Her reaction was visceral – there was no way she was going to pick up that book after she saw the title. Just seeing the title was a form of violence they need to be protected from!
The report was done in 2021 so was no doubt highly influenced by lockdowns, creating the dual effect of loneliness and melancholy with little escapism other than the internet. The article raises good points, but there is a context.
It’s because children have become superfluous. There’s no real need for them anymore beyond serving as a lifestyle accessory to those who can afford them. As such, they are underemployed, purposeless and depressed. We don’t know what to do with them so we send them to school and then college hoping they’ll figure it out by the time they need to get a job. In the meantime they are accruing debt in order to be worthy enough to fit into a system that sees them as nothing more than economic units.
As much as I hate the woke movement a large part of it is children looking for an enemy to fight. Unfortunately, many unscrupulous media agencies have picked up on this and are more than happy to collect readership subscriptions while amplifying young people’s fear and anger.
Other causal factors:
Wuhan Flu lockdowns & mandatory maskurbation.Missing out on a year of school.Trans ideology.
Trans ideology is enough to do it right there.
And what of individual, family responsibility? Madonna recently complained of society’s attitude problem to aging women in some sort of explanation for her transforming her face into a botox doll. You’d think, after all she’s said, done and earned, she’s ‘privileged’ and ’empowered’, but no, she is also a victim; when it suits. Meanwhile, back in the real world, I see mostly praise for growing old gracefully, and mockery for ‘mutton dressed up as lamb’.
The disintegration of intact, biological families leaves many adrift; the victimised persecution-complex “oppression” narrative everyone is now taught as standard (patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity etc) – which does not correspond to most people’s experience, thus creating a disjuncture between the ideas we’re supposed to live by and the reality we inhabit; the incendiary nature of social media argument… There’s probably other reasons but these seem to be the main culprits.
“But the roots of this crisis run far deeper than Instagram. Today, a vast, interconnected network of industries — from social media to wellness to entertainment to cosmetics to pharmaceuticals — exploits and profits from girls’ pain and unique vulnerabilities.”
Today’s industries (etc)? Freya, perhaps it goes deeper than that. Check this out:
I don’t think social media is the cause; but only because I don’t think there is a cause. There are many contributory factors, of which social media is surely one.
I give credit to the author for mentioning female pathologies. But, more is needed.
First we need the truth. Boys and girls (men and women for that matter) have different psychology and biology.
Jonathan Haidt has done great work to show how Social Media impacts girls differently and more severely due to their nature.
It is liberals and feminists that are not allowing us to use this truth to craft the right solutions and help girls.
AWAITING FOR APPROVAL
I told the truth, and Unherd cannot handle the truth….
OMG – did you order the code red?
They’re waiting until we’re all gone to post it. I’ll come back.
Children’s Health Defense
”Autism, ADHD, epilepsy, autoimmune disorders, deadly allergies, SIDS, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, learning disabilities and more have been increasing for over 25 years. Over 50% of our children are chronically ill. A new NIH study found that 49.5% of adolescents ages 13 to 18 have a mental disorder. This is unacceptable.” – Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.”
Here is part of it – plastics are also – as are the chemicals in food and water and environment – all the plastics in your home? Venting off gasses, and so on ad infinitum….It is a new world out there, and not a better one.
This guy is the son of, and nephew of the two Dead Kennedys – so is very political and has resources. He notes the MASSIVE spike in these disorders happened exactly when childhood vaccinations began a couple decades ago.
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