Social Media Isn’t the Main Reason Teens Are Depressed… It’s us dysfunctional adults


The “dangers” of social media lend themselves to alarmist headlines, especially when there are high-profile cases of abuse or violence with a social media component. That’s why many commentators, advocates, and Congress members are simply blaming teens for their increased stresses and advancing proposals to ban persons under age 16 from social media like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok.

Like many policy efforts when it comes to youth, this misses the mark and ignores the real crises afflicting teenagers.

The real crises the most troubled teens face involve their parents’ rising addiction, suicidal and addictive behaviors, and violent and emotional abuses. Bans on teens’ online access are dangerous, since surveys indicate the most distressed fraction of youths use social media to connect to others and find “people who can support them during tough times.”


Decades of research show that troubled teenagers are the product of abusive, troubled adult families. Physical and emotional abuses inflicted by household adults are firmly linked to their children’s later depression and suicide, closely tracking the increase in teens who reported having “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” (26% in 2013; 44% in 2021).


Missing (and Misrepresenting) the Point

Nearly all press reports seem to avoid admitting the disturbing realities that teens cannot evade.

A typical example is the scary-sounding but meaningless statistic that “suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens.” That’s not because suicide is particularly rampant among teenagers, but because teens rarely die from natural causes. For example, in 2021 and 2022, the CDC to date records 4,184 suicides and 2,705 deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer for ages 12–19; and 8,661 suicides and 73,257 deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer among ages 42–49. Deaths can be lamented without completely misrepresenting teens as uniquely self-imperiled.

Unfortunately, legislators and other leaders have proven unable and unwilling to design effective responses to the United States’ epidemics of drug and alcohol fatalities, gun violence, suicide, and related self-destructive behaviors that together killed more than 400,000 people in the U.S. in 2020-2021. Yet, many of those same commentators and leaders eagerly blame social media and teens.


Leave Those Kids Alone

Congress has a dismal record of imposing effective age limits on what it deems dangerous behavior. Long-term research using improved techniques found that raising the nation’s drinking age to 21, initially celebrated for “saving lives” (albeit at the cost of hundreds of thousands of annual teenaged arrests), actually just “postpones fatalities” into young adulthood by disrupting the vitally important gaining of “experience” with alcohol. Likewise, imposing strict teen-driving laws was associated more with increasing fatalities among young adultsthan with reducing them among younger teens

Alarmism hurled at every younger generation for more than a century has proven useless. Within a couple of years, the alarmists are back to proclaim new youthful crises worse than ever.

Leading psychologists of the early 1900s trumpeted the “extraordinary increase” in “child suicide” they blamed on popular media (“cheap theaters, pessimistic literature, sensational stories”). The American Youth Commission’s 1936 testing found 75% of young men were suffering debilitating mental troubles. Science News Letter reported in 1937 that kids “as young as six to thirteen” were being treated for suicidal thinking. (Pundits now call those kids the “Greatest Generation”).

Surveys found mental health professionals of the 1980s estimating the averageteenager was more mentally disturbed than psychiatric patients. In the 1980s, the psychiatric industry profitably hyped the “tripling in teen suicide” to fill empty beds in overbuilt hospitals. In the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center, led by Tipper Gore, blamed rock music for teenagers’ woes. A 1995 CDC reportdeclared suicide had “soared” among young adolescents. In 1998, Rolling Stoneblamed television for children being “the most damaged and disturbed generation this country has ever produced.” In the early 2000s, college and university counselors proclaimed a “campus mental health crisis” and won tuition increases to fund more staff. Apparently, it didn’t do any good. Counselors are back again, demanding more money because “student mental health is in crisis.”

What we should be studying is how teenagers, supposedly impulse-driven, miserable, “temporary sociopaths,” should be so unlikely to act self-destructively compared with supposedly stable, mature grownups. They don’t need authorities stepping in once again with more misdirected alarmism and destructive bans that trivialize the real-life problems they face.

MIKE MALES is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the principal investigator for YouthFacts, and the author of five books on American youth.


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