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VICTOR JOECKS: How adults caused a spike in teenage depression

If you want to be depressed, look at statistics on teenage depression.

In a survey taken in 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 44 percent of high school students said they “persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.” Around 20 percent considered suicide. Another 9 percent said they had tried to end their lives within the previous year.


It’s tempting to dismiss this as a one-off. The survey was taken during the pandemic. Students in many states, including Nevada, suffered from unnecessary isolation as adults refused to open schools and other activities. That was a big factor.

But while this boosted these alarming numbers, it didn’t create them. In 2019, 36.7 percent of high school students said they were persistently discouraged. That same year, 18.8 percent said they thought about suicide with another 8.9 percent making an attempt to do so.

You can’t just write this off as normal teenage angst. The numbers are sharply higher than in 2009. That year, just more than a quarter of high school students felt hopeless routinely. Suicidal thoughts and attempts were around a third lower compared to 2019. Yet even the 2009 numbers are deeply concerning.

The teenage mental health crisis is here, and it’s been building for a long time. Fixing it requires correctly diagnosing the root causes. But the answer to a problem such as this won’t be popular. If the solution made society’s most influential people happy, it would already be solved.

Adults caused the problem. Teenagers think they know how to best run the world, but they don’t actually run it. Adults and society more broadly must have changed something that’s negatively affecting teenagers.

One major revolution in the past 15 years is the internet, smartphones and social media. In 2014-15, fewer than a quarter of teenagers said they use the internet “almost constantly,” according to Pew. In 2022, the number is 46 percent. In 2015, 59 percent of 14-year-olds had a smartphone. Last year, it was 91 percent. Almost a third of 8-year-olds have a smartphone. In 2015, it was 11 percent.

Teenagers live on their devices. It’s terrible for them, and many of them know it. Pew found 36 percent of teenagers say they spend too much time on social media.

Companies build social media sites and video games, which boys tend to prefer, to be addictive. It makes them money. But that doesn’t mean families and society more broadly should passively accept it. If you want to help your teenagers, break their phone. Have them read books, not watch videos. Encourage face-to-face, not virtual, interactions. Get them physically active. This can be tough, because phones are addictive for parents, too.

There’s more. For decades, the institutions and beliefs that helped shape American teenagers have come under withering attack. Most are fraying. The most obvious is the family. Kids do best when their biological mom and dad raise them. But the share of single parent families has tripled over the past 70 years.

Many public schools teach kids that America is evil. Global warming alarmists claim the end of the world is nigh. God is long gone from public schools, along with the sense of purpose and morality that religious beliefs provide. Being uncomfortable with how your body changes during puberty is normal. Today, popular culture tells teens those feelings mean they might be a member of the opposite sex.

No wonder kids are feeling anxious and worse. The people and institutions that once gave teens stability are gone or undermined. Chaos and the internet is filling the void, and teenagers aren’t equipped to deal with it.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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