It's tough to be a teenager. Hormones kick in, peer pressures escalate and academic expectations loom large. Kids become more aware of their environment in the teen years — down the block and online. The whole mix of changes can increase stress, anxiety and the risk of depression among all teens, research has long shown.
But a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests many more teenage girls in the U.S. may be experiencing major depressive episodes at this age than boys. And the numbers of teens affected took a particularly big jump after 2011, the scientists note, suggesting that the increasing dependence on social media by this age group may be exacerbating the problem.
Psychiatrist Ramin Mojtabai and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health wanted to know whether rates of depression among teens had increased over the past decade. They analyzed federal data from interviews with more than 172,000 adolescents. Between 2005 and 2014, the scientists found, rates of depression went up significantly — if extrapolated to all U.S. teens it would work out to about a half million more depressed teens. What's more, three-fourths of those depressed teens in the study were girls.
The findings are just the latest in a steady stream of research showing that women of all ages experience higher rates of depression compared to men, says psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair. And no wonder, she says — despite gains in employment, education and salary, women and girls are still "continually bombarded by media messages, dominant culture, humor and even political figures about how they look — no matter how smart, gifted, or passionate they are."
Today's constant online connections — via texting, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, — can exacerbate that harsh focus on looks and other judgments from peers, she says. The uptick in teen depression Mojtabai found after 2011 could be evidence of that.
Mojtabai says girls, in particular, "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."
The effects can feel devastating, says Steiner-Adair.
"We know girls are very vulnerable to defining themselves in comparison to others," she says. Her young female patients often tell her they get their "entire identity" from their phone, she says, constantly checking the number of "tags, likes, Instagram photos and Snapchat stories."
Steiner-Adair urges schools to be proactive in trying to reduce teens' feelings of being "left out" or judged. One tool, she says, might be a course in mindfulness — a form of meditation that has been shown to offer measurable health benefits and can help reduce anxiety and depression.
Such training can help teach kids that their brain "on tech" actually needs a rest, Steiner-Adair says. Mindfulness training teaches the value of solitude and can help practitioners calm the urge to constantly check the phone — a useful skill for people of all ages and gender.
Meanwhile, Mojtabai says, parents and family doctors, as well as teachers and school counselors, should be on the lookout for any behavioral changes in the teens they live and work with that might be signs of depression. Symptoms can include changes in sleep patterns, appetite or energy, or a growing inability to pay attention and concentrate.
Even just one counseling session to evaluate such symptoms, Mojtabai says, can help get teens back on the right track.