Teen mental health has taken a dive over the last decade and the pandemic hasn’t helped. I discuss 4 reasons why, and what we can do about it. Here’s that Atlantic article mentioned and my previous episode on social media & teenage girls. 
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Transcript Below!

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– [Zubin] So today I read a piece in the Atlantic by Derek Thompson that hit close to home as a parent. And it was about rising levels of teen sadness, depression, anxiety, mental health issues in teens. And this was, actually, a pretty good article. I’ll link to it in the show notes. But I wanna talk about it and digest it for you ’cause I think this is crucial as the next generation’s coming up and we’re seeing really epidemic levels of unhappiness in kids and it’s partially our fault, so, we can, actually, fix this. So, Derek starts by kind of pointing out that since 2009 levels of self-reported sadness, depression, anxiety, et cetera in kids have skyrocketed more so in girls than boys.

And so there’s a few things to digest here. Number one, is it real? And so, there’s sort of three things he goes through that are kind of these fallacies that people have that no maybe it’s not real because first of all could it be that teens are just butt holes? And of course, they’re gonna say these things because they’ve been doing bad activities forever. But the truth is if you have, actually, look at data there’s less drinking and driving, less early sex, less alcohol abuse, less all kinds of the kind of things that we used to do when we were kids that in kids now. So, it’s probably not that. It’s also not a question of overreporting. So yeah, we’ve destigmatized mental illness to some degree.

So maybe kids are more comfortable saying, oh, I feel sad or I’m depressed or whatever. And that’s all great and possibly a small component of it. But then you can, actually, look at ER visits for suicide attempts and for self-harm, cutting and things like that. So, actual and eating disorders, things like that. They’ve all risen. And in fact emergency department staff will tell you, this is a crisis. Now, the third sort of fallacy is, well, this is all just because of the pandemic, right? No, it was happening before the pandemic. In fact, I did a show on it called, you know, What is social media killing our girls?, prior to the pandemic back in 2018 or 2019. So, this has been something that’s been brewing for a while.

And there are four main things that the article points out that I generally agree with that may be contributors to it. The first is of course the big one that we talk about all the time, social media. So, it turns out that this rise in despair seemed to start… Now, by the way, remember, these are young kids mostly more often girls that are, actually, contemplating and attempting suicide. More, self-harming all this stuff. This is a real thing, right? And it’s a serious, serious problem. So, we don’t wanna discount any of this. Social media starting around 2009, when they started measuring this. Around 2012 about 50% of people had smartphones. You have unlimited access to social media and kids that were born and growing up then, now are sort of hooked on this. Now, why is this a problem? Why is social media a problem? And you cannot paint anything with a single brush. So, he draws a parallel to alcohol, which I think is valid.

For some people, for the majority of people, you can drink moderate amounts, get some social benefit from it. Some wellbeing benefit from it and the harms to the body and to the mental health into addiction and all that are minimal. But there is a group of people, a large group of people that suffer disproportionately. And it turns out young girls are in that group. And they’ve, actually, looked at this. Instagram, looked at this. About a third of young girls say that using the Instagram app, actually, made them feel worse. Now, why is it that girls seem to suffer disproportionately? Because social media sort of weaponizes and hijacks our limbic system. Our already pre-existing drive for validation, for social relations, for acceptance in a group and that’s why likes and shares and all of that feels so good. It’s like jacking right into our brain stem, right? Now, with young girls who don’t yet have a fully developed sense of identity and all of that, especially, in that window, you know, 13 years old and so on.

They’re very sensitive to this. So, fear of missing out, relational bullying on social media seems to be more prominent with girls. Guys just seem to get physical with each other more. I mean, again, I’m generalizing, but the idea of you can never escape the bullying because they have 24/7 access to you through social media. You are constantly chasing ideals that don’t exist in the real world and beauty filters and all this other stuff, right? And we’ve not evolved to have that degree of limbic emotional and social hijack at that young of an age. So, the social media component of it is really a huge issue, especially, if girls have unlimited access, because, on average, they’re using it for five hours a day. Which brings us to the, and guys suffer from this too. Now the second big problem is this idea that it’s not just social media, it’s what social media is costing us. What it’s taking away. So it’s one thing if Instagram or Facebook or Twitch or not Twitch, Twitch is dumb for gamers. I’m talking about TikTok.

If that were replacing, staring at a TV screen and watching dumb cartoons all day, right? That’d be one thing. It’d be a swap, but it’s not. What we’re finding in the data is that it’s, actually, replacing in-person social connection. So our children are, actually, becoming more alone and not in a good way, because they’re alone with a phone. And they’re deep in the, you know, five hours of social media and at all hours. So, it’s cutting into their actual relations. And there’s plenty of data that says that kids, actually, do better in social situations. Most of them, mentally. From mental health standpoint. So, social connections, relations, friends, peers, those are crucial parts of growing up and they’re being taken and put onto social media which is not a substitute. In fact, it’s poisonous in that way. And so, you’ve taken away alone time and replaced it with alone with phone and you’ve taken loneliness and you’ve made it epidemic because they’re not, actually, seeing each other, instead they’re seeing each other through these filters. That’s a huge problem. Now, you can imagine that the pandemic made that worse. So, we took probably one of the greatest public health mistakes of all times and we inflicted it on our children.

We closed schools. In the Bay Area they were closed for a year. And then after that, we put masks on kids. That cloth masks that didn’t do much of anything. And we robbed them during pandemic of that social interaction. That’s so crucial. And we put them on devices and Chromebooks and Zoom and all this other garbage. So, we made it much worse. Now you could say, well, there was some, maybe you had to do some of that whatever. The bottom line is, the harm is done. So, what was already a problem accelerated dramatically during pandemic and any pediatricians you talk to, psychologists you talk to, psychiatrists you talk to, parents you talk to will all tell you stories. My kids will tell you stories of their peers that are in the guidance counselor with anxiety, depression, disconnection. They still haven’t seen each other’s faces here in the Bay Area because they’re still, even though there’s no mandate, they’re still wearing masks because they’ve been conditioned to do so by fear. Which is problem three. Now, I’m starting to get riled up because I have two daughters, age 14 and 10. And by the way, they’re amazing kids and they don’t get social media. And I talk to them about news and things like that. And I talk to them about the importance of social stuff and it’s still a challenge, right? So, this being said, the third thing is this milieu of social news that we have, between social media and nonstop news availability on the internet. Kids are deluged with the impression that the world is a disaster area.

The entire world is a super fun site. That’s how old I am. I still remember super fun sites. Climate change is gonna kill us. Political division’s gonna kill us. Neo-Nazis are gonna kill us. The war in Ukraine, the pandemic, my daughter was telling me about kids in her school. They’re so afraid of COVID. They’re paralyzed by it. Not knowing at all that their own risk and the risk of their vaccinated families is like. But they don’t know that because they’re watching the news which by the way, has a negativity bias. Negative news sells because again, it hijacks our limbic system our unconscious mind. Our emotional mind that evolved to keep us safe from threat. So it has a threat bias. It’s that elephant that is the majority of our brain. And this little logical rider thinks he’s in charge but he ain’t, right? So, surrounding yourself with crappy news means kids feel a sense of despair. They feel the world is worse off than when their parents had it. And you can look at actual statistics to say, oh, we’re, actually, a little safer. And things are generally getting better. Even if you disagree with that, kids have a disproportionately negative outlook. And this is during a very delicate time. I remember growing up in the Cold War and thinking, oh, the end of civilization is at hand, right?

And that was terrifying as a teen because you have all this existential fear as it is. So now kids are bombarded with these existential sort of news stories constantly, constantly. And guess what, adults are too. And they transfer it to their kids. Which is problem number four. Oh, by the way, for the news thing, you think this I’m just making this shit up. So, Facebook, there was, actually, a study where they, right before the midterm elections, they took Facebook away for four weeks from people. And then they gauged how they did. This is what they found. The people were less informed in general about world events but they had higher scores on wellbeing. Personal subjective wellbeing. So they knew less about the world, but they were happier. I don’t know. I would take that trade off any day that my teen doesn’t know how many civilians were, you know, murdered in Mariupol but they feel better about their general prospects and are gonna be a bigger impactor in the world. I think, that’s probably a reasonable trade off to avoid the constant news cycle of negativity, right? Positive stories barely ever get reported. And that leads us then this projection of anxiety into problem four, which is us, the parents. So, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianhoff wrote a book called “The Coddling of the American Mind”, which is a must read book for all of y’all. And the premise is basically this. Since the seventies and eighties, when there were these high profile kidnapping cases, you know, very few kidnappings. In fact, they’ve all gone down over time but high profile news, right? Parents started this process of overparenting their kids. Protecting them, not letting them go out, not doing stuff. And all this data says, kids are driving less. They’re getting their driver’s license later. They’re kissing a girl or a guy later. They’re not drinking alcohol, doing all these standard risk taking behaviors. They’re pushing it all later, because the parents have wrapped them in bubble wrap and it’s all done with good intention. The parents are anxious too. And they’re projecting this anxiety onto the kids which means they don’t get to take the same kind of risks. They’re doing less chores. They’re doing less summer jobs, things like that. And they’re in a battle to get into college, which again, the parents are projecting their own hopes and dreams. This is often more affluent parents, onto the kids. And the kids are overscheduled, booked with dumb activities they don’t really care about. They’re not, actually, doing like kinda standard sports and things like that. They’re not hanging out with their friends. They’re not doing kind of stuff. They’re just overscheduled and parents are driving them around everywhere or the nanny’s driving them around everywhere. And it’s this race. So they’re doing tons of homework. It’s not like they’re lazy. You think Gen Z is lazy? You got another thing coming. My kids are not lazy. It’s actually, they’re overworked. The amount of homework they get and other garbage like that. They don’t get to go out and play. They don’t hang out with their friends. It’s a play date now, like it’s a big thing. Like we have to schedule with Veronica’s mom and we have to do this and we go make sure that, oh and by the way, are you guys gonna wear your masks? Are they triple vaccinated? No, we didn’t have any of this when we were kids. We hung out, we took risk, we socialized, we got beat up a little, right? And that made us stronger. Children are anti-fragile. They get stronger from adversity within parameters. You don’t wanna break them with an adverse childhood experience that’s so bad that causes damage. But you do wanna challenge them. And we haven’t. Parents have just dropped it. And this accommodative parental style where we say, oh, you know what? Little Jane is afraid of dogs. So, she can’t go over to anyone’s house who has a dog. If you have a dog, you need to lock your dog up. And we’re gonna avoid dogs at all costs to keep her from being upset. Is that the best way to do it? No, little bits of exposure. You challenge kids. You don’t overprotect them, because then what happens is they become fragile. And that’s what we see now where kids feel like words are, actually, violence, where you need their safe spaces and all this other stuff. And it does affect their mental health because they don’t have a sense of competence, of agency, of overcoming adversity. And we’re overvaluing all this college admission stuff to the detriment of our children going out and having free play.

Like recess has been shrinking, shrinking, shrinking shrinking. It ought be the whole day, honestly. ‘Cause school doesn’t do much else. Anyways, but that I’m a little biased. And, so we need a little more permissiveness of discomfort with our kids and with ourselves. We need to let go of this anxiety. So, for these four things, social media, how are we gonna save our kids? Social media, don’t let ’em have it. Or, have a really honest talk with them. Constantly, look at what’s going on. Watch what’s happening, because it’s cutting into their sleep too. So, many fewer of them get less than eight hours of sleep because they’re often up watching YouTube videos or watching connected to their phone, connected to social media, texting with their friends late at night. We had to have a talk with our daughter about this. ‘Cause she wasn’t sleeping. So, parents control that, believe me. They can. And that’s something that ought to happen but it ought to be done in conjunction with your kids because it’s a partnership, actually. You can say, this is why I’m doing it. My daughter, actually, downloaded Snapchat, and was using it, we didn’t know. And we found out she was using it. We were like, we got really mad at her. We’re like, what are you doing? Like Snapchat is garbage.

Like it’s social media. And she, actually, sat us down and was like, “Listen, I wanna tell you how I’m using Snapchat. Let me show you. Let me show you what my privacy settings are. Let me show you who my friends are. Let me show you what we do. This is how we communicate with each other. And we use these filters. And we use it through Snap because they’re all on Snap.” Now I can, she said, “I can delete it, but it’s gonna be less out of person interaction with my friends, which is fine.” So we looked at it and we said, “Let’s do a trial. We’re gonna watch what you do for a month.” And that trial is still ongoing. So that’s how we do social media in our house. You may have different solutions, right? But there are resources online too, for this. From the asocial part, let’s stop calling these things play dates. These your kids. Go hang out with your friends. Carve out time to just do nothing, right? And go hang out with your friends. Have sleepovers, do the kind of things that we used to do that generate that real relational connection. And now that you know COVID is not, I hesitate to say this, but COVID is not a thing. Go do your thing with your friends, right? Let them do this. It’s starting to open up in the bay. My kids are having a sleepover this weekend. It’s great. ‘Cause other parents sphincter tone has dropped finally. From the world news piece, it’s just talking to your kids and modulating that. And, you know, kind of just, if the minute you get rid of the social media, they’ve already lost a lot of that garbage.

And we need to sort of talk really bigger picture like financial incentives for the press. Wouldn’t it be nice if they got paid more for running stories that were more accurate and positive than constant negativity bias stories. Where, you know, if it bleeds it leads type of thing. And then the parenting thing. Well, parents, there are resources online too. Definitely check out “The Coddling of the American Mind” it has a big bibliography in the back and different resources for a more appropriate parenting to make our kids more anti-fragile. And it’ll solve a lot of our problems. The less social media, less political division. Less hive mind, less group think, all these things. So anyways, I hope this was helpful. I’m sorry it was so long. I kind of make this stuff up as I go. If you like what we do, please become a Supporter. Join our Supporter Tribe where we have conversations like this live exclusively for supporters at zdoggmd.com/supporters and Supporters, actually, get access to free continuing medical education credits for any specialty that accepts AMA PRA Category 1 Credits for reflecting on this activity. We put a link in your supporter feed for access to that. I love you guys. Let’s love our kids by showing them a little bit of tough love sometimes. And being a little harder on ourselves on how we do this because projecting our anxiety on the kids is not helpful. Believe me, and I’m guilty of it too. I love you guys. We are out.