The teenage years are among the most exhilarating, stressful, strange, tumultuous years of life. Bodies and brains are growing and changing at alarming rates. Hormones are overloaded to the max. And teens are seriously experimenting with limits — constantly testing the boundaries of their relationships with their parents, themselves, and their peers.
It’s no wonder so many teens deal with mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Looking back on my teenage years, I was so depressed and anxious at times, I’m surprised I made it out in one piece. My social world was an exciting one, and in many ways, my friendships saved me from some of the turmoil I was dealing with in my family. But the tenuousness of teenage relationships — coupled with a the deep desire to fit in — sometimes made life really hard for me then.
However, I had one advantage over the teenagers of today: When I was a teen, there was no social media. If someone thought that I dressed like a “dirty hippie” (yeah, that happened to me frequently), they had to say it to my face. And they had to watch me tear up and walk down the hall to the school counselor’s office for help.
Of course, not every piece of critique or bullying happened face-to-face then. Notes slipped into lockers, anonymous phone calls, and the rumor mill were all in fair play. And bullying could still be as cruel as anything. But back then, I believe it was harder to get away with the meanest stuff than it is today, when all you have to do is leave one nasty comment on someone’s social media account and hundreds of kids immediately see it (and also have the ability to screenshot, share, and pass it along).
Unfortunately, my theory about how much harder social media has made it for kids is grounded in some truth, and a recent study published in Pediatrics proves just that. Psychiatrists at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted the study to see whether depression among teens had increased over the past decade.
They looked at federal data from interviews conducted with over 172,000 teens between 2005 and 2014. What they found is that depression among teens rose significantly over those years — an estimated half a million more teens than in previous decades.
But even more striking than that is the approximately 3/4 increase among teens girls. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I saw that statistic, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Being a teen is no picnic, but being a female teen — in fact, being a female at all in this world — is rife with so much pressure and so little support, it’s no wonder females are feeling the brunt of it.
The psychiatrists at Johns Hopkins believe that social media is at least partly to blame for this uptick in depression and is a huge reason that depression is affecting girls more. The psychiatrists found the biggest uptick in depression in 2011 when social media sites like Instagram (which is frequented heavily by teens) gained in popularity and where outward appearance is often overemphasized, self-worth can come down to how many “likes” your picture gets, and cyberbullying runs rampant.
Ramin Mojtabai, one of the authors of the Pediatrics study, tells NPR that girls “are more likely to use these new means of communication, so may be exposed to more cyberbullying or other negative effects of this latest social media.”
Mojtabai emphasizes that family members, school officials, and anyone who works with teens should be on the lookout for symptoms of depression, which include changes in sleep patterns, appetite, energy, and the ability to concentrate. Mojtabai says that counseling or therapy is an excellent choice for teens who are struggling with depression and that even one session can help get them back on track.
Now, I don’t have a teen yet, but I will in just a few short years, and this all makes me even more terrified about entering those uncharted waters than I already was. But I think the thing to remember is that the more knowledge we have as parents, the better. And the takeaway from a study like this is that if our teens ever exhibit symptoms of depression or other mood disorders, we need to remember to take their symptoms seriously, address them, and get them the help that they need.