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3 Ingredients Catalyzing the Spike in Teen Depression 


Dynamic ImageLast week I had the opportunity to talk with teenagers in Georgia… the topic of my choice. So I chose to address the elephant in the room: depression.

It seems counterintuitive: the economy is strong, drop out rates are down, teen pregnancy is down, more kids wear seatbelts, less kids smoke, kids have unprecedented knowledge and entertainment at their fingertips, YouTube is still free… and McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets are now actually made of chicken!

So why is it that kids are by far the most depressed they’ve been in literally decades?

If you’ve even glanced at a newspaper in the last few months, you’ve seen countless articles about the rise in teen anxietydepression and suicide. In fact, the suicide rate for teen girls just hit a 40-year high.

The question everyone is wondering is why?

Experts are speculating, and most of their theories have one “device” in common: the smartphone.

I can’t say I disagree. In fact, I see three ingredients catalyzing this unprecedented increase in teen anxiety and depression, and all flow from that device young people carry around in their pocket.

Let’s take a quick peek at these three factors, and then a few practices that can counter these precarious influences:

1. Social Media
Who doesn’t want to be LIKED?

I found it extremely difficult to fit in when I was a teenager. I had a very poor self-esteem and found myself consistently striving to measure up to some unspoken standard, wondering if others noticed me, liked me…enjoyed my company. I remember thinking, would they even notice if I was gone? But by God’s saving grace, when the bell rang at 2:37PM every day I escaped school and was able to retreat to a home where I was noticed, valued and loved.

My heart aches for today’s teens who never get that break at 2:37PM; in fact, now they enter a whole new world where measuring up is even more difficult, because it is noticeably gauged by lines of measure we call “LIKES” and “FOLLOWERS.”

Today every student struggles with, “How come they didn’t like my post?” and, “Why don’t I have as many friends or followers as Jake?”

I’m definitely not alone in this theory. Experts consistently cite social media as the culprit to this increase in unhappiness, some even naming specific apps like Instagram (which, ironically, can also reflect if someone is depressed). Social media tends to display other people looking their best and having oodles of fun, which can make our own life look rather pathetic.

“I wish I had her body, hair, lips… her boyfriend…and her French Bulldog!”

Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and author of iGen agrees, particularly noticing the increase in feelings of “loneliness” around 2012, which happens to be the year smartphone-ownership crossed the 50% mark in the United States (now over 80%).

Experts also point to cyberbullying, and conflict with friends as a source of depression. Guess where all this cyberbullying and conflict occurs? Social Media.

But Social Media isn’t alone contributing to depression…

2. Digital Absorption
Screens are killing relationships. It’s not just social media—it’s texting, YouTube, Netflix and every other diversion our devices offer that distract us from the very people we care about the most sitting right next to us! Our culture has even named this phenomenon: partner phubbing.

It’s really not that surprising people are spending more time with screens than the people they love. Screen interaction is way easier for most people.

People have always struggled with insecurity. But now they have a new tool… or vice… that allows them to take some of the fear out of face-to-face communication. Digital communication allows two conveniences: the ability to hide behind a user name or avatar, and ability to groom or edit our communication. Let that sink in for a moment. Consider the ramifications for someone who is insecure: it provides an escape from the struggles of real life communication; and the more they use digital communication, the less equipped they are for face-to-face communication.

But our mobile devices also offer an escape from interpersonal venues. Now if a person feels awkward in a social situation, they simply bury their head in their phone. If three or more young people are in a conversation and one person isn’t really contributing, it’s now socially acceptable for them to pull out their phone (“the rule of three”). This creates a downward spiral. Fleeing interpersonal communication only makes people more antisocial.

Here’s where it becomes really damaging: the more we retreat to our mobile devices, the less we take an interest in those around us.

There’s another word for this: self-absorbed.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation, calls this the Empathy Gap. The more we become absorbed in our own digital world, the less we empathize with the people around us. We actually hinder our ability to recognize facial cues. We don’t notice our friend sitting next to us feeling tense.

“Chris… you look sad. Are you okay?”

One colossal problem: self-absorbed people are miserable.

But this gravitation towards “self” isn’t only from digital communication, it’s from the entertainment young people are soaking in at an average of 9 hours a day. Entertainment that often preaches…

3. The “DGAF” Mindset
Now that the overwhelming majority of young people have smartphones in their pockets, they carry a vast library of entertainment media with them; and much of this entertainment has a common theme:

“Who cares!”

Or as many of today’s young people say it…

“I Don’t Give a F**k!”


This “do whatever you want” mindset doesn’t pause to consider consequences; it only thinks about the immediate thrill.

What else do we expect when we tell our kids that truth is only what we make for ourselves“Do what feels right at the moment.” “Don’t let anyone else tell you what to do.”

Sadly, there are two costs to this kind of living:

  • Consequences actually do happen, and a life of consequences leads to unhappiness.
  • Living a life of “who cares” and “what’s good for me” is selfish and puts others’ needs secondary to your own. This is an archetypal recipe for unhappiness. Call it counterintuitive if you must, but selfish living breeds unhappiness.

Take a peek at entertainment media for yourselves. Music alone tells the story. Today, as I write this, you’ll hear Cardi B bragging explicitly what she’s going to do with your boyfriend, or Post Malone threatening to grab and Uzi and use it if you “mess” with him (he words it a little differently). Demi Lovato isn’t as violent, but don’t mistake that for forgiveness. She makes it clear that she’s not sorry, and “it’d be nice of me to take it easy on ya, but nah.”

But French Montana and Swae Lee probably say it best, in the chorus they repeat in their song Unforgettable:

And you are unforgettable
I need to get you alone
Why not?
A f**king good time, never hurt nobody…

Sadly, most young people are discovering that “a f**king good time” often has its consequences (also in the headlines right now).

So in a world where social media, digital absorption and self-focused-entertainment all lead to feeling lonely, regretful and depressed, how are caring adults to react?

The common overreaction would be to ban technology completely. One problem with this response: our kids are sure to encounter technology sooner or later, and who is going to equip them to be responsible with these devices?

Moms, dads, grandparents and mentors can make a huge difference, and research is there to back you up. Here’s a few simple practices that truly make an impact on our kids’ self esteem.

Helping Our Kids’ Self Esteem: 

  • Empathetic listening
    Is it really surprising that the cure to a lack of empathy is empathy?In a world where an increasing amount of people are ignoring those around them, simply take notice of your kids.A brand new study reveals that if parents “acknowledge the perspective” of their kids and allow them to express themselves, then these kids are less likely to be depressed, engage with others easily, and have an overall stronger sense of self-worth.Whodathunkit? Simply listening to someone makes them feel more valued.And here’s the cool part. When you take the time to notice your kids, this paves the way to…
  • Dialogue
    And in a void of face-to-face communication, is it surprising that good ol’ fashioned interpersonal conversation makes a difference?Talk with your kids about their self worth. If you don’t know what to say or ask, use free resources like the Stranger Things: Season Two discussion guide we just added to our Netflix Discussions web page. This discussion specifically deals with the struggle to fit in, and provides questions and scripture to help you dialogue about this important subject. Similarly, my brand new book to young people, The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices spends several chapters exploring selfies, LIKES, posting pictures, and discovering our true identity (and these chapters have discussion questions and scripture so you can dialogue about this).Engaging in healthy dialogue is the one parenting practice that every researcher out there actually agrees on. Parents should constantly be dialoguing with their kids about their thoughts and feelings… even their digital habits. In my book, If I Had a Parenting Do Over, I call this “Walking With” our kids, and devote the entire last chapter to what this looks like in today’s digital world. In fact, ‘walking with’ our kids enables us to…
  • Share Truth in a World Potent with Lies
    Sometimes today’s believers get so distracted trying to block lies that they forget to point towards truth. Help your kids’ discover what it looks like to practice wise posting in an insecure world. Help them navigate encouraging entertainment media. And most of all, help them understand that they are worth so much more than the number of LIKES they receive.

What do you need to slide aside to take notice of your kids today?

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Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for parents on his website Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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