Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report from a decade-long study of teenagers. The report got headlines for noting a surge in severe depression, defined as prolonged sadness or hopelessness lasting two weeks or more, and an increase in suicidal ideation, even if the overall teen suicide rate has increased by just one percent. Many commentators quickly concluded that this coincides with increased social media usage, without being specific about how teens use it, or that Covid-related lockdowns exacerbated existing problems, and some were just baffled.
After reading the complete report, I’ve found the reality far more complex, leaving me with more questions than answers. Most notably, teenage girls are reporting the highest depression rates, along with an increase in experiencing sexual violence. The focus on social media use fails to take into account how teens use it, and how it’s used against them. As the demographics are further broken down by race and sexual orientation, there’s a definite pattern that some groups are persistently facing greater difficulties than others.
The survey spans the decade from 2011-2021, with check-ins at odd-numbered years. Demographically, it doesn’t ask about one’s gender identity, and uses “LGBQ+,” and refers to indigenous peoples as “American Indian or Alaska Native.” There’s no indication of the students’ regional residences, or their economic status.
Regarding sex and substance use, the news is consistently adequate across racial groups. There’s a decline in sexual activity, with less than a quarter of those surveyed describing themselves as sexually active, while 30 percent say they’ve never had sex, and those that do engage appear to be doing so responsibly. Despite a decrease in contraception usage and STD testing, a majority of straight couples still use condoms. There’s an expected drop in sexual activity after 2019, but even from 2011 to 2019, there’s still a decline of about 15 points. The one outlier is that there was an uptick in activity among those reporting as LGBQ+, who were having more sex, sex with more partners, and were more frequently getting STD tests. I’d attribute that pattern to more personal liberty allowed to queer kids to date openly. Alcohol use has steadily declined, while other illicit drug use appears stable. The only significant increase has been vaping, which I believe has to do with novelty. The other notable demographic break was that girls, LGBQ+, and American-Indian or Alaska-Natives all reported the highest rates of substance use, in addition to relating the most frequent experiences of bullying and violence.
The analysis of teenagers facing violence is where the real story lies. One notable trend is that while bullying at school steadily declined, there was an increase in electronic bullying. Female and LGBQ+ students reported the highest levels of bullying. LGBQ+ students, and those in same-sex relationships, reported the highest levels of bullying at every level: the highest rates of bullying on-campus, being threatened or injured—particularly with weapons, staying out of school out of fear for their safety, and electronic bullying. By race, American-Indians and Alaska-Natives were most likely to report bullying, and girls were twice as likely as boys to report being bullied.
From 2017-2021, there was a four-point increase in girls reporting incidents of sexual violence (defined as “kissing, touching, or being physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want to”). By race, American-Indian or Alaska-Natives had the highest rate at 18 percent. Multiracial students were second at 12 percent. At 37 percent, LGBQ+ teens who had any same sex partners reported more than double the amount of experiences of sexual violence.
The research doesn’t speculate about those perpetrating the violence. Sexual abuse, particularly against children, is usually performed by someone the victim knows, and given the surge during lockdown, I conclude that this pattern persisted on a larger scale. In regard to the demographic information, there were high rates of Covid deaths among indigenous Americans early in the pandemic, which could’ve left teens vulnerable. More generally, over 200,000 children have lost both parents to Covid. Those whose families haven’t died or broken up have seen tremendous stress and truculence.
This question also lingers in the field of electronic bullying. We typically think of bullying among teenagers as something that’s done within a peer group, but when social media allows random adults more access to teenagers, it’d be foolish to allow the focus to be so narrow. It’s very likely that on-campus bullying has decreased because those inclined to bully their peers can use social media without interference from parents or teachers. There have been high profile cases where a teen’s assault is captured on video, and then distributed online to expand the victim’s humiliation, sometimes resulting in suicide. There’s also the likelihood that the bullying is coming from random strangers, invariably adults, looking to exploit vulnerable teens. The European Union and the FBI have issued reports on a rise of what they’re calling “sextortion,” often targeting teenage boys as frequently as girls. In the scam, a stranger will pretend to be an appealing peer to get the victim to send intimate photos or videos, only to demand money in exchange for not making the photos public.
Former Facebook president Sean Parker has described social media as “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” likening it to a casino effect of randomized rewards affecting mental stimulation. But maybe kids who’ve grown up with it see it as just another mundane part of life. A 2018 Pew Research Center report found that 95 percent of teens report having smartphone or computer access, with 45 percent describing themselves as online “almost constantly.” Before the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, there was already an increase of teenagers, mostly girls, reporting higher levels of depressive symptoms and engaging in suicidal behaviors. Researchers like Jean Twenge link the noticeable shift to a rise in social media use. A 2021 leak of an internal Instagram report found that teenage girls who use the site were more likely to feel depressed and anxious, and if they were already prone to eating disorders, using the site amplified their symptoms.
The Pew report noted that the sites or apps most commonly used by teens are YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat, which are all centered on sharing photos and videos. Text heavy sites like Twitter and Reddit were dead last, with Facebook landing in the middle. A majority of teens felt neutral about their social media use, viewing it as just another communication tool. A third of teens described social media as enriching their lives, with an emphasis on being able to stay in touch with geographically-distant friends and relatives. The smallest group, at 24 percent, reported social media as having a negative impact in their lives, with a focus on bullying. Only four percent saw social media as a cause of mental health issues.
The results of the Pew study are intriguing because they’re not very consistent with the commentary from adults. In research that relies on case studies, there’s an implicit bias where the subjects seek counseling because they’re already prone to depression and anxiety. That those symptoms are exacerbated by social media is valid, especially in the characterization of girls trapped in the social-validation feedback loop. But in looking specifically at how social media can be used as a weapon of psychological warfare, we can see how it’s taking a toll on otherwise well-adjusted teens, even if it’s because it’s proven to be a poor substitute for personal interaction. To go back to the idea of a casino effect, not everyone who goes to Caesar’s Palace develops a gambling problem, but the expansion of legalized gambling has also led to increasing reports of addiction.
I’ve written in the past about teenage girls complaining about sexual harassment at school, only to have administrators try to solve it by enforcing stricter dress codes on the girls instead of correcting the behavior of their male peers. The response to the CDC report feels similar, in that there’s an upswing in depression among teenage girls that correlates to a surge in violence being perpetrated against them, and the adults are responding by blaming social media. Outsourcing responsibility is an easy solution to a complex problem: if everything is Instagram’s fault, then everything is Instagram’s responsibility. In addition, many of kids being hurt are LGBQ+, and some of the solutions being proposed by the CDC are the sort of identity validation currently being erroneously derided as “woke” or “grooming.”
As I noted above, the number of teens describing themselves as depressed or anxious, and possibly suicidal, has seen a significant increase: 60-70 percent of girls and LGBQ+ teens described themselves as experiencing prolonged sadness or hopelessness. But according to the report, the increase in actual suicide attempts has only been one percent. This tells me that much of the emotional distress is situational, and in observing comments among teens or parents, and sometimes teachers, the stresses are economic uncertainty, climate change, and rising crime. Social media is regarded as a problem, but not the problem. Most frustrating is that reliable information exists on how to solve these problems, but the solutions take thoughtful work built on community consensus. Seneca said, “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” In my view, depressed teens are trapped on ship sailing in circles because the crew can’t be bothered to read the map.