The data on depression in teenagers is frightening

For the US CDC, schools can help prevent problems like depression by promoting interactions outside the virtual environment with trusted adults.| Photo: Pexels

A survey recently published by the US government brings an alarming warning: the mental health of teenagers is the worst it has been in decades. And girls are the main focus of the problem.

The publication was made by the CDC, the US government agency that has a function similar to that of Anvisa in Brazil. In a survey published last month, the agency came up with scary numbers. In 2011, 36% of teenage girls and 21% of teenage boys said they often feel sad or hopeless. In 2021, the percentages were 57% and 29%, respectively. That is: the numbers increased for both, but the increase was much greater in girls.

The study also notes that 30% of high school students (and 14% of college students) had considered suicide within a year of the interview date. The increase was 60% since 2011.

For the CDC, schools can help prevent problems like depression by fostering interactions outside of the virtual environment with trusted adults—”such as mentors, trained teachers and staff”—who can “help promote connectedness to school” so that teenagers “know that the people around them care about them.”

The study is not the first to show that something is wrong with the mental health of teenagers.

British study

In 2018, a study of 11,000 teenagers in the UK also concluded that teen mental health is at alarming levels. The researchers also found what may be the main culprit: social media use.

In the survey, among young people who used social networks no more than an hour a day, the rate of depression was 15.1% for girls and 7.2% for boys. In the group that spent five or more hours a day online, the figure was 38.1% for girls and 14.5% for boys.

The authors of the study also point out the possible reasons why social networks can worsen the mental health of adolescents: “Poor sleep, bullying in the virtual environment, poor body image and low self-esteem appear as important ways in which “Social media use is associated with depressive symptoms in young people,” they report.

The evidence is piling up

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who is a professor at New York University, is following the issue closely. Recently, he looked at the data and has no doubt: for a decade now, we’ve been living through “the largest adolescent mental health epidemic on record.”

For Haidt, two conclusions stand out: first, that girls are more affected by the problem. Second, that there is a clear correlation between social media use and worsening mental health.

Haidt says the British study and more recent data from the CDC only confirm the conclusions of other researchers. In conducting an analysis of the main studies conducted on the topic, Haidt concluded that 55 found a significant relationship between the time spent on social networks and the incidence of mental health problems. Another 11 studies did not find this association.

Other studies, such as a survey published in Journal of Abnormal Psychologyshow similar trajectories, with accelerated deterioration of adolescent mental health since the early 2010s.

Hyde points out that the problem started at the beginning of the last decade, when exactly smartphones have become ubiquitous. “The hours the girls spent each day on Instagram took away from sleep, exercise and time with friends and family. What do we think will happen to them?’ he asks.

moderation and caution

Professor Vitor Geraldi Haase, from the Department of Psychology of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), says that the reality in Brazil does not deviate from the pattern that exists in other countries, adding that the pandemic has worsened the situation.

Haase says girls are more susceptible to peer pressure, which is amplified by the competitive environment of social media. Networks increase comparison between young women — both in terms of physical appearance and other aspects, such as personal achievements. It is a constant exposure to a world in which competition, if not outright, exists at least in a veiled way. And precisely at the stage where accelerating changes leave people more exposed to fluctuations in mental health. “Especially in early adolescence, young people are very susceptible to peer influences. In social networks, peer exposure is exacerbated, both in terms of models and in terms of feedback,” he explains.

The professor adds that overexposure to social networks can be a road of no return, with consequences for mental health. “Young people are exposed in ways that are sometimes irreversible. Social networks create a glass ceiling, a kind of invitation for criticism or even personal aggression,” he explains.

PhD in Psychology from UFMG, Carolina Nassau Ribeiro states that her perception goes in the same direction as recent scientific studies. “Empirically, we have seen an increase in cases of anxiety, self-harm and suicide attempts,” he says, before adding that the data in Brazil is not as up-to-date as in the United States.

For Carolina, although completely preventing teenagers from accessing social networks is difficult, parents cannot stop closely monitoring what young people are doing in the virtual environment. “Today there are already several applications in which parents can accompany their teenagers in the use of social networks, the Internet and games. The internet is a virtual road. Just as supervision is needed in the real world, so is it in the virtual world,” he says.

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