Does Digital Increase Mean Rise of Depression?

Today’s youth really are different from past generations. They’re more plugged in, they’re more immersed in their phones, they’re more active on social media—and they’re also unhappier.

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, stopped in for a 4Front podcast to discuss the changes she sees in the younger generations and how the ongoing pandemic may further shape them. A Minnesota native, Twenge began working on her Ph.D. by studying gender differences while at the University of Michigan, but she soon switched her focus toward broader theories about generational shifts.

Since the 1970s, surveys of teens aged 16 to 17 and young adults have pointed to increased individual freedom and equality. But we’ve also seen rising levels of disconnection, entitlement and even narcissism. Then, says Twenge, “everything kind of fell off a cliff in about 2012.” Self-esteem responses started to fall. After decades of increases among Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials, life satisfaction declined among young people, and they were reporting more depression and loneliness. “That’s when I started to realize that we had a new generation on our hands, even earlier than we thought they were going to arrive,” she says.

Twenge calls this new generation—born roughly between 1995 and 2012—the iGens because of the influence of the Apple iPhone. Others call the generation Gen Z. Whatever the name, the big mystery was why this generation’s self esteem and mental health responses were trending downward.

Some blamed iGens’ dark views on the 2008 recession, but Twenge says the timing didn’t quite fit. Twenge’s “aha” moment came when she ran across a Pew Research survey from late 2012 that marked the first time a majority (53 percent) of American adults owned a smartphone. Following that, Pew found that social media use among teens rose from 50 percent in 2009 to 90 percent in 2015. And a survey of new college students showed that time spent socializing face-to-face had dropped by an hour per day between 1987 and 2016.

The shift from in-person to digital socialization fit all the criteria behind Twenge’s iGen theories. “It wasn’t something that people just read about in the news or happened to teens’ parents. It happened to them. It fundamentally changed the way they spent their time and the way that they socialized with one another.”

Flash forward to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people, including teens and young adults, to socially isolate and rely even more on their Internet-connected devices. So did that have an impact on iGens? An early indicator is the U.S. Census’s Household Pulse Survey, which shows marked increases in depression among iGen young adults during the past year. But Twenge says there’s also some research that shows teenagers faring a bit better.

“They were still obviously using these technologies to keep up with their friends, but their in-person time-shifted to be more with their family,” Twenge points out. “And that has some benefits, too—even for teenagers, contrary to popular belief.”

LISTEN TO JEAN'S PODCAST NOW


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