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Teens and young adults are in the midst of a unique mental health crisis, suggests a new study out Thursday. It found that rates of depressive episodes and serious psychological distress have dramatically risen among these age groups in recent years, while hardly budging or even declining for older age groups.
Lead author Jean Twenge, a 47-year-old professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has spent much of her career studying the attitudes and beliefs of younger generations. Most recently, in 2017, Twenge published a pop-science book laying out her central argument that teens and young adults coming of age are especially lonely and disconnected, thanks in part to the growing abundance of social media and devices like smartphones. Her book is titled iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.
Twenge’s book and work had has its detractors, who argue that her theory is supported by cherry-picked and weak evidence, or that other factors aside from smartphones could be the real culprit behind a legitimate rise in teen depression. A new study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and authored by Twenge and others, seems poised to rebut at least some of these criticisms.
Twenge and her team looked at data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative survey of Americans’ lifestyle habits. In total, they looked at more than 600,000 Americans across different age groups who took the survey from 2005 to 2017.
Between those years, they tracked the rate of reported episodes of major depression and serious psychological distress, measured by how people responded to questions such as whether they ever felt “so sad or depressed that nothing could cheer them up.” They also looked at rates of suicide-related outcomes, such as how often people thought about suicide, formed plans to carry it out, and actually attempted it.