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The coronavirus, social media, and teen mental health

Shifting trends over the last year reveal the roots of depression among young people

iStock.com/suriya silsaksom

The coronavirus, social media, and teen mental health

Each month, hundreds of teenage girls contact Texas sisters Bethany Beal and Kristen Clark through GirlDefined, a ministry they started in 2014 for young women. The majority of those girls struggle with some form of depression, anxiety, or an overwhelming sense of not measuring up, Beal said.

Clinical-level depression is rising among American teens, according to recent data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health. When Jean Twenge, a California psychologist, broke down the data based on gender, she found that depression doubled among teenage girls between 2009 and 2019, and rose 74 percent among boys ages 12 to 17. Many experts point to social media as a factor, and COVID-19 changes have helped highlight other aspects of teen well-being.

Twenge attributed the spike in teen depression to the rise of smartphones and social media: “It’s tough to think of anything else that changed consistently over this time period that had as big an impact on so many people.”

About 95 percent of teenagers own smartphones, and 45 percent of them say they are online almost constantly, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study. A separate report from the San Francisco nonprofit Common Sense Media found 52 percent of teenage girls used social media daily in 2015 compared to 38 percent of teenage boys.

Beal agrees social media usage correlates with rising depression rates among young girls. At GirlDefined conferences, online webinars, and on the ministry’s blog and social media platforms, Beal said young women constantly say they are not skinny enough, fit enough, smart enough—the list goes on.

“They are scrolling social media 24/7 and comparing themselves,” Beal said. “We live in an image-driven society. … If you don’t have a strong relationship with God, your parents, and other believers who are encouraging you, it’s a downward spiral that leads to depression.”

A survey of 1,500 teens by the Institute of Family Studies and the Wheatley Institute found that between May and July of this year—during coronavirus lockdowns—the prevalence of depression and loneliness among teenagers was lower than in 2018. The study’s authors attributed the decline to teens getting more sleep and spending more quality time with their families.

The study also said mental health was significantly better for teens in two-parent homes both before and during the pandemic.

Beal of GirlDefined encourages girls to connect with older women in their church who will meet regularly with them. She tells parents to slow down and spend more time with their teenagers and limit (or completely avoid) social media.

Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.


Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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