Earlier this year, the New York Times published two articles about adolescent mental health that attempted to position social media as the cause of the ills under discussion. First there was this piece about a fascinating and disturbing phenomenon that manifested itself over the course of the pandemic: a small minority of TikTok obsessed teens developed “tics” after following the accounts of young people with Tourette’s Syndrome; the second article was less specific, but perhaps even more alarming — adolescent girls and teens who identify as queer or bisexual are reporting increasing rates of depression and suicidal ideation.
According to the Times though, the culprit is smartphones — and social media. They quote Dr. Victor Fornari, “the vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry for Northwell Health, New York’s largest health system,” who claims there’s “‘no question’ of an association between the use of social media and the dramatic increase in suicidal behavior and depressive mood.”
No doubt there’s a connection there, but as is typically the case with depression and mental illness, there isn’t one root cause, but rather a tapesetry of neruoses and anxieties. Social media can be thread in that tapestry, of course, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the other pressures exerting themselves on children and young adults. Truth be told there are a lot of reasons why young people might feel depressed and hopeless. For instance, the imminent threat of planetary and societal collapse. Just a small thing, we know, the end of the world, but believe it or not, it can put a lot of stress on a young mind. Small wonder then that Doomerism — a catchall for those who hold the fatalistic belief that the world is coming to an end — is an increasingly prevalent mindset among adolescents. In fact according to the results of a 2021 survey published in The Lancet, 55.7 percent of people between the ages of 16 and 25 believe the earth is doomed. Is it any wonder, then, that 57% of adolescent girls feel sad every day?
It’s too easy to blame social media when the alternative is blaming yourself: it is easier for the New York Times — and other long-standing institutions of similar repute — to look at social media as the root cause of depression among young people, because to consider the root causes of doomerism is a form of self-indictment. Those older generations are responsible for creating the context in which this fatalistic mindset has taken root in our youth — and why blame yourself when it’s so much easier to blame TikTok and Instagram?
The sad thing is, by failing to identify and understand the real reasons why adolescents are struggling with depression and mental illness, we put ourselves in a position where it’s impossible to actually help them. An honest assessment of their issues — and our role in helping to create those issues — will not only help us help and understand them: it’ll help create a stronger intergenerational bond, which will benefit our generation, their generation, and the next one, still in their bassinets.