A recent study in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Abnormal Psychology found mental health issues increasing among young Americans. The research found that while older adults have not had a significant increase in psychological distress, it has increased with young adults, with partial blame given to an increase in digital media use.
Indra Cidambi, M.D., with the Center for Network Therapy, agrees that digital media has a role to play in this rise of mental health issues. “Our teenagers are active members of multiple virtual communities, but they are increasingly distanced from people in their real world. The virtual world provides pseudo social experiences which are not readily transferable to the real world. Consequently, they are anxious and awkward in their social interactions. In order to escape anxiety-provoking social interactions these kids isolate, which, in turn, leads to depression,” said Cidambi.
Dr. Nancy Irwin, a psychologist concurs with this perspective, noting that ”constant viewing of phones robs you of the ability to connect in real time and see what you are ironically seeking: acceptance.” Continual exposure to devices not only has a negative impact on in-person connections but also increases comparison which has an adverse influence on mental health. Irwin continues, “We are socially comparative creatures by nature, but the field of comparison is the entire world now. In the palm of our hands, literally, we can find overwhelming evidence to "prove" we are not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, etc.”
Dr. Sarah Neustadter, the author of Love You Like the Sky, has concerns about the content youth are exposed to through social media. She said, “The lack of censorship and moderation of comments on social media makes young people susceptible to trolling and online bullying. They both do it and receive it without any consequences. Experiencing this on a regular basis, even in a minor form, can lead to depression, anxiety, social issues, and panic attacks. This makes them highly sensitive and vulnerable to internalizing self-judgment and criticism based on superficial factors such as appearance, popularity, and body image.”
Kerin Groves, Ph.D., has seen in a change in coping skills during her 25 years as a licensed counselor. She says younger people “tend to give up easily and have low frustration tolerance, others solve problems for them (usually parents), and they have little resilience or ability to persevere in adversity. Alcohol, marijuana, and video games are very common means of stress management - all of which are avoidant rather than adaptive."
Groves adds that “anxiety and depression are the inevitable results of this sociological cocktail. Emerging adults must navigate normal developmental stages to move to the next level of emotional maturity, but this natural process is being stalled. Failure to experience difficulty and learn from it can spiral quickly into fear, worry, insecurity, and shame for many young adults.”
Nidhi Tewari, LCSW, believes the upturn in mental health issues is about more than digital media use or coping skills. She notes that “while there are unique challenges this generation is coping with, I also think part of what we're seeing are shifts in the way we view and address mental health as a society. This generation is educated about depression and anxiety because of the dialogues we are having as a nation.” While the increase in mental health disorders are partially due to how people use technology, awareness is a side benefit. As our culture talks about mental health more, we can expect to see more alternative approaches such as hackathons and tech companies stepping up to address our digital wellbeing.