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There's a new study that confirms depression and other serious mental health issues have become more common among teens and young adults. It's not clear why, though some of the researchers believe social media is a factor. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports on the study published by the American Psychological Association.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Researchers from San Diego State University analyzed government data which tracks mental health among Americans of all ages. Psychologist Jean Twenge headed the study, which looked at depression, suicidal thoughts and psychological distress.
JEAN TWENGE: And they include things like feeling nervous, feeling hopeless or feeling that everything was an effort.
NEIGHMOND: She found that since 2005, these mental health problems increased significantly among teenagers and young adults under 26. For example, depression rose by 52 percent among younger teens and 63 percent among 18 to 25 year olds. Serious psychological distress and suicidal thoughts also increased. But among adults 26 and older, these problems remained relatively stable, which raises the question, says Twenge, why such a dramatic rise among the young? Her study was not able to pinpoint a reason, but she has some ideas.
TWENGE: It happens that 2012 is the year when smartphones became common. And it's around the time that social media moved from being optional to mandatory, especially among teens.
NEIGHMOND: Mandatory in the sense that if you're not online, you're missing out on a lot. Twenge says it's not the phone or social media itself. It's the amount of time spent looking, surfing, posting, which can add up to eight or nine hours a day for some kids, which means more time online than in person.
TWENGE: Spending time on social media tends not to be in real time. You're not having a real-time conversation with someone. Usually, you're not seeing someone else's face. You can't give them a hug. It is just not as emotionally fulfilling as seeing someone in person.
NEIGHMOND: And face-to-face social connection, says Twenge, has been shown to be good for mental health. Many teens and young people take their phones to bed, delaying or interrupting sleep. And it's known that sleep is also really good for mental health. The findings don't surprise psychologist Mary Fristad with the Ohio State University who specializes in mood disorders and treats children from age 10 through college. She says many are very, very concerned about having an experience they can post on social media.
MARY FRISTAD: Not even so much can I - am I looking forward to having fun this weekend, but am I doing an event that I can post on Snapchat so that other people will know that I have friends?
NEIGHMOND: Fristad says kids typically worry about peer status and approval as they're growing up. But social media, she says, exaggerates those concerns.
FRISTAD: As opposed to going to school with your hair (vocalizing), suddenly there's going to be a picture of you with your meh (ph) hair. And everybody's going to see it. And they can comment on it, and they can make fun of you.
NEIGHMOND: Now, sociologist Robert Croesner at the University of Texas at Austin isn't buying the idea that smartphones and social media might be the culprit here. He says there's lots of potential causes, including living in a world of uncertainty.
ROBERT CROESNER: Where people are unsure about the future of the country but also about their own futures. We know in a time of great economic uncertainty and ups-and-downs - and that is anxiety provoking for anybody. But it's especially true for young people whose whole future is ahead of them.
NEIGHMOND: Researcher Twenge says future studies should try to determine exactly why mental health problems among the young are on the rise. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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