Why are Teenagers so Sad ?

In a few of my other blogs I mentioned that I have worked with teenagers in most demographics in several different capacities. One of my motivations was this subject. Teenagers and happiness. I have noticed a very slow decline in happiness among teenagers. I can understand that children in the foster care system have little to be happy about and certainly children and families living in poverty would tend to be sad or suffering from depression. However, the erosion is among all demographics.

This seems foreign to me because most people in my generation enjoyed high school. I have always thought, and still think, that your high school years should be some of the happiest times of your life. In high school everyone is self-conscious or insecure about something and bullying has always been a problem. On the other hand, these years provide you with a degree of independence, the ability to participate in numerous extracurricular activities, which provides an opportunity to make friends with similar interests.

As juniors or seniors in high school, many will find jobs and learn how to drive. Learning how to drive and getting that first job gives most teenagers a taste of independence and freedom that usually brings a great deal of happiness. For about five years, I volunteered at a group home. This is a place where they bring children who are removed from their home due to neglect or abuse prior to being placed in foster care. I remember thinking that these kids are being robbed of their childhood and most will never experience the joys of being a teenager. I volunteered there on Saturday’s for about 4 or 5 years. Each time I left those kids, I felt a great sense of despair knowing they would never experience the type of childhood that I enjoyed, especially my high school years. It would also make sense that these children would be unhappy and even suffer from a loss of hope.

Social Media:

Unfortunately, an incredible number of studies over the last ten years suggest that very few teenagers, regardless of their social standing or culture, experience happiness during their high school years. I am now going to quote some ugly statistics that I pulled from a few recent articles. I will quote the source when necessary or mention articles on this subject using the same or similar studies. According to a CDC study conducted in 2021 of almost 8,000 teenagers, 44% of high school students have feelings of sadness or hopelessness. That’s almost half!!

I think feeling hopeless is worse than feeling sad. The number of teens that have suicidal thoughts was even more severe. More than 25% of teen girls and nearly 50% of teens that identify as LGTBQ have suicidal thoughts. I am the oldest of 5 siblings and we all went to the same, very large high school from 1974 – 1984 and I don’t recall 1 suicide attempt. In 1994, I was the youth minister at a parish on eastern Long Island and there were 3 deaths in an 8-month period, all in the same high school. Although that experience may not be representative of the state of teenagers during that time period, it certainly made me aware of the drastic changes in attitude and how teens cope, or that they can’t cope, with certain situations. In an article I read in the Atlantic during the pandemic, it stated that from 2010-2014, the rates of hospital admission due to self-harm did not increase for women in their 20’s.

However, in that same short 4-year span, it doubled for girls ages 10-14. If you let that sink in, that girls as young as 10 years old are harming themselves, something is seriously wrong. In an article written by Derek Thompson, he summarized an article written by Jean Twenge titled “have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation”. Mr. Thomas suggests that social media isn’t like rat poison, which is toxic to almost everyone. It’s more like alcohol: a mildly addictive substance that can enhance social situations but can also lead to dependency and depression among a minority of users.

One of the most popular forms of social Media, Instagram, actually validated social media as being habit forming and addictive. The company’s own internal research from 2020 admitted that it was, in fact, habit forming. While most users had a positive relationship with the app, one-third of teen girls said “Instagram made them feel worse,” even though these girls “feel unable to stop themselves” from logging on. When we think of addictions, alcohol and drugs come to mind. However, this study by Instagram suggests that social media can be dangerous and is habit forming. A study by Cambridge University researched 84,000 people of all ages and found that social media was strongly associated with worse mental health during certain sensitive life periods, including for girls ages 11 to 13. There are other studies that suggest the use of social media increases feelings of loneliness and isolation because there is no need to gather as a group. From my own experiences, I noticed several reasons why social media contributes to feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation. Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, etc. don’t represent reality. On Facebook, people might occasionally post something tragic like a death in their family or a request for prayers. However, a very large percentage only post positive things or exaggerated events. On Instagram and Tik Tok there are filters that make most people, primarily women, look almost perfect. As an adult, we can see through the phoniness and laugh at it, or ignore it. If you are an adolescent, and many users of social media are as young as 10, you don’t understand the art of deception. Combine that with the ability for people to make anonymous and harmful comments and the statistics regarding the decline in happiness among teenagers is predictable.

Factors other than Social Media:

Although social media plays a vital and very complex role in the lives of teens and preteens. It doesn’t have a monopoly on inducing loneliness and hopelessness among adolescents. I might suggest the following reasons that can also contribute to feelings of despair.

Single Parent Homes:  I attended high school in the late 1970’s. At that time, single parent homes comprised 12% of all households with children. By 2020 it was 26%, more than one in four. Single parents constantly struggle with conflicting priorities with children losing out on the amount of time they spend with their parents. Diminished emotional support can affect teenagers in a variety of ways, but it usually isn’t positive.

Academic Pressure: It seems each year the pressure to get into a top tier college becomes more demanding, escalating to a dangerous outcome. Helicopter parents monitoring every assignment and grade, SAT tutors, college career counselors, volunteer hours, coaches to teach students how to master the letter writing and interview process. Helping students to get accepted to a top college, or sometimes, any college has become a business. Many teenagers today complain about the stress associated with getting accepted to college. For some, that type of stress can lead to anxiety and depression.

The higher cost of living: Although the rate of inflation has garnered a lot of attention during the past two years. The major necessities like owning a home, buying a car, the cost of healthcare, and of course, the cost of college is putting parents in a desperate situation as the cost of these items are becoming almost unattainable. Stress in the home, especially financial stress, is felt by the children as much as the parents.

Cultural or identity factors: This factor, I will admit, is based on my own experiences and views of watching the news and paying attention to current events. There is no argument with inequalities associated with race, different nationalities and peoples’ identities. Sexual or other types of identities. However, it seems like every news show I watch and most of the podcasts I listen to exacerbate the problem. The discussions focus on what is bad for which group and blaming certain ills on one political party or another. I see very little attention being paid to groups and activities that foster equality, hope and a sense of togetherness.

Is there a Solution:

At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned that many teenagers today feel hopeless. I believe there is hope. There are solutions and answers. My next bog titled What if Happiness is a Goal presents options for finding acceptance, raising self-esteem and finding happiness.