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Social media and modern politics BOTH cause depression among boys and girls
Newly-crunched data show major negative trends in teen wellbeing
Note: In this post, I aim to display new data to help get at the cause of rising teen depression and suicide.
Teen depression is rising
The CDC has a new survey out showing increasing depression among teens, especially girls, which is linked in large part to social media use.
Their survey shows a dramatic negative shift:
As we’ll see later, there is good reason to think this is a real trend, and not just due to changes in how people answer surveys, or anything like that.
So what’s going on?
Another survey asked a slightly older cohort (ages 18-29) what hurt their mental health, and 37% of them cited social media. Slightly more blame politics (45%) and news (46%).
Such respondents probably don’t have Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker stories in mind. Rather, Gen Z mostly gets their news from viral political content on Tik Tok, Instagram, and YouTube. Content there leans hyperbolic, uncharitable to the opposite side, and apocalyptic. So social media is intrinsically linked to the negative effects of news and politics.
(As a quick aside, it’s interesting that young adults said work made them feel better!)
Detailed surveys of high-schoolers confirm that social media and politics are reducing happiness
It turns out that government-funded researchers at U. Michigan have carefully surveyed high-schoolers every year for decades, asking them the exact same questions to preserve comparability across time. Their main goal was to pick up trends in drug use, but they also asked loads of other questions which paint a fascinating and detailed picture of teen life in America.
I grabbed two of their datasets and computed changes in behavior from 2007 (the year when US teen suicides were the lowest ever) and 2020, the most recent year in which the survey was conducted pre-Covid.
Here were the biggest changes in 12th grader behavior:
The data are consistent with social media crowding out everything else — both in-person and solo activities
The single most-increased activity was “spending at least an hour alone” every day, nearly doubling from 42.7% to 74%.
It doesn’t take much of a leap to guess what kids are doing in their 1+ hour alone — they’re on their phones.
Other major solitary activities declined:
— Weekly reading of books and similar long-form content plunged the most, falling from 63.8% to 39%.
— Daily TV watching, a less-healthy solitary activity, also fell, from 67.3% to 52.1%.
While classic solitary activities plunged, social ones did too.
— The percent of 12th graders who’d ever been on a date collapsed from 66.5% to 43.4%.
— The percent who go to parties monthly or more fell from 69.4% to 52.8%.
— The percent who hang out with friends at least weekly dropped from 83.8% to 71.5%.
Overall, one might predict a negative impact on happiness from such trends.
The data are consistent with a small impact from “woke” political causes taking up increasing mindspace
After the rise in “spending at least an hour alone”, the next-biggest rise was in students’ answers was the importance they put on “working to correct social and economic inequalities.”
The proportion of students rating that "quite important" or "extremely important" rose from 40.9% to 52.8% (even though objectively-measured inequality did not rise over that time period.)
There was also a modest increase in students agreeing that “there'll probably be more shortages in the future, so Americans will have to learn how to be happy with fewer things.” That rose from 51.6% to 57.4%, and is the question that most closely fits an environmental catastrophe scenario, as well as general pessimism.
There was also reduced agreement for the question “despite its many faults, our system of doing things is still the best in the world” despite the US continuing to maintain a median income higher than any other country. Agreement fell from 44.3% to 38.4%. Answers to some other questions didn't change much.
Overall, these questions show that the media’s recent focus on inequalities and environmental apocalypse have impacted teenagers’ views, making them moderately more concerned about such things.
A closer look at teen politics and depression
Matt Yglesias of the excellent Slow Boring points to a study of 12th graders that broke down depression by politics and gender:
The graph clearly shows that liberal teens were, and are, more depressive than conservatives — but it does not show big differences in trends.
Compared to the golden year of 2007, here are the changes (rounded):
Liberal girls: 1.9 → 2.6 (0.7 raw increase, 37% increase)
Liberal boys: 1.9 → 2.5 (0.6 raw increase, 32% increase)
Conservative girls: 1.6 → 2.2 (0.6 raw increase, 38% increase)
Conservative boys: 1.7 → 2.2 (0.5 raw increase, 29% increase)
So there has been just a subtly higher increase for liberals. Their raw increase was roughly 15%-20% more than it was for conservative teens. But they had a higher baseline level, too; their percentage increase was basically the same, meaning the ratio of relative depression between liberals and conservatives has hardly changed at all.
Matt is certainly right that left-wing doomsaying influencers are doing liberal children no favors by telling them that the world will end in 10 years, that they’ll soon be living in the Handmaiden’s Tale, etc.
But teen conservatives have become a lot more depressed, too. That suggests that some or all of the following must be true:
A) The political effect is much smaller than the overall social media effect
B) There’s almost as much doomsaying on the conservative side of social media
C) Conservatives became unhappy through dealing with depressive/angry liberals
D) A combination of all three, or something else
I suspect A, B, and C are all in play.
While the overall increases in depression are somewhat similar across political groups, the timing of the increases in depression are clearly different. Liberals’ depression started rising a full 2 years before that of conservatives, regardless of gender. Also, girls' depression started rising 1 year before boys', regardless of politics. As a result, liberal girls’ rise in depression started rising in 2012, a full three years before that of conservative boys (2015.)
A possible model for that is: conservative boys are less tuned in to, and less affected by, apocalyptic content on apps — but they are impacted when their classmates or teachers, after consuming that content for years, suddenly think they’re an evil bigot because they flirted in a problematic way, or engaged in silence regarding some popular cause (and silence is violence, in case you didn’t know! At least according to my social media feeds in 2020.)
Liberal girls’ rising depression in 2012 actually predated major media outlets’ skyrocketing coverage in of racism, sexism, etc. David Rozado has put together data showing how mainstream media coverage of “woke” issues was flat for a while, and only started shooting up in 2014, the same year as the Michael Brown shooting was given a national media spotlight. 2014 and early 2015 were also when issues on university campuses started hitting my radar as a reporter — I was suddenly flooded with pitches about university students and employees engaging in what John McWhorter has since dubbed “woke racism.” For example, I covered this really ugly story in May 2015. Shortly after those cases began appearing, Trump announced his run for President, and the trend towards “woke” issues escalated to new heights.
Conservatives’ depression began rising then, in 2015.
Is it conceivable that liberal girls, being tapped into toxic Tumblr/Instagram posts and other viral leftist content, started getting an “apocalyptic politics” bug in 2012, before the mainstream media, or anyone else? Maybe.
Or is it possible that liberal teens were just earlier adopters of social media, and were most hit by non-political use of it? That seems unlikely, actually. Richer people leaned Republican in 2012, suggesting that if anything, more conservative kids should have more access to the latest smartphones and addictive social media.
Liberals have always been more sensitive to negative things
There have been numerous academic studies looking into why liberalsconsistently report being less happy than conservatives.
This 2015 study notes that there is a strong negative correlation between neuroticism (which means sensitivity to negative things) and happiness. It also reports that there’s a significant correlation between neuroticism and liberalism.
Why? The study proposes this reason:
Some have argued that an individual’s level of neuroticism may shape the political attitude she/he adopts. For example, Mondak and Halperin (2008) suggested that emotional stability at a general level leads people to fret less over societal injustices or inequalities.
That’s a good reminder that while our society gives “neuroticism” a negative valance, it has an objective meaning of sensitivity to negative things, which is not inherently good or bad — that depends on the context.
The study found two other major personality traits that conservatives have that are strongly correlated with happiness: Conscientiousness, and religiosity. Liberals, in contrast, are higher in openness to new experiences, which the study shows is uncorrelated with happiness.
Female gender is also highly correlated with neuroticism, which makes sense from an evolutionary psychology perspective. As one academic study puts it, it’s due to:
“the greater centrality of mothers, rather than fathers, to offspring survival. This selection pressure is realized psychologically through a lower threshold for fear among women.”
Data from other countries show that teen unhappiness trends are international, showing that the issue is bigger than Trump or any specific domestic issue
The excellent Richard Hanania did a deep dive into differences between countries. In general, he found big increases across many developed countries — leading him to conclude that social media itself had a major negative impact.
Just for example, Australian data shows very similar trends to the US CDC data:
Australia today does have a lot of “woke” ideology (as does the entire Anglosphere) but there was no Australian equivalent of Trump.
Everything above points to social media as being a strongly negative factor.
I think all the above suggest that apocalyptic politics is probably a smaller, but still noticeable, factor in declining happiness.
Suicide rates confirm the survey data & remind us that boys’ depression is also critical
Survey data is better than nothing, but it’s hard to trust it completely, since it’s all self-reported. But here are suicide rates from the CDC:
From the 2007 low point, the male teen suicide rate is up by 3.6 deaths per 100,000 (a 58% increase.)
The female suicide rose 2.1 deaths per 100,000 (a 140% increase.)
This is in line with two things:
— teen girl unhappiness seems to be rising more than male teen unhappiness, confirming the surveys.
— teen boys have always been much more deadly when unhappy, and that has not changed; as a result, it takes a lot less of a shift in male unhappiness to lead to more suicide deaths.
Given that, society could probably use a less one-sided approach by the media:
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Now, I also checked if the rising suicides could be due to changes in gun use, but the proportion of suicides due to firearms has been flat-ish, and could be at most a minor factor in the shift.
Also, rises are somewhat similar across all racial groups, again suggesting a broad-based cause:
Some perspective — the world is not ending
The above trends are quite bad, but the graphs are all a bit misleading in isolation, because they don’t go back far enough. But this chart does:
We can see that while the US did hit an all-time high in recent years, it’s not much higher than the previous peak in the mid-80s.
I don’t know what caused the 1970s/1980s suicide wave, but I do know that it closely matches the crime rate, which hints at either bullying or some common factor (lead? Crack? The cultural impact of welfare? The lingering effects of economic stagnation from the 70s?)
It’s beyond the scope of this article to answer why teen suicide spiked in the 80s, but it’s worth knowing that the 80’s peak was at a similar level as today, to keep perspective on things. The world isn’t ending.
Moving forward — awareness
The most obvious reaction is just to be aware of the negative impact of social media on teens.
Try dropping it as much as you can, and try suggesting kids drop it as much as they can.
Try reading a book instead. Try reading the Wall Street Journal or non-inflammatory Substacks instead of Instagram.
There’s no easy fix, but I do think it’s possible for society to build up “cultural immunity” to most things, including this.
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Oh, finally: Whenever someone says that the “kids these days” are different, I’ve often heard the point that people have always complained about the next generation, going all the way back to Aristotle 2,500 years ago.
That sounds like a good point.
Except — has anyone checked in on Greek civilization since Aristotle wrote that?
The 2020 data is only for the start of the year, before Covid shut the surveying down. I use that year because I don’t want Covid to confound the social media / politics trends I’m trying investigate. A future post may look at the 2021 post-Covid data; I suspect that exacerbated trends.
The survey doesn’t specifically ask about social media, because its questions were formed before that got big, and its questions are designed to be tracked over time.
Other things did not fall. To avoid bias from withholding “null results”, here are some things that stayed fairly constant:
I apologize for using the word “liberals” when “leftists” is more appropriate, and I would have switched the terminology, except that many of the sources/surveys I cite specifically use “liberal.” This is the verbiage being used in the United States currently, so we’ve got to live with it for now.