Huge Spike in Mental Illnesses Recorded in Millennials and Gen-Z, Social Media Blamed

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The percentage of young Americans with mental health issues has spiked in the past decade, according to researchers. Social media, which can eat away at sleep, could be to blame, the team believes.  Getty Images

The mental health struggles of Millennials and GenZers have been laid bare in a study showing a spike in rates of depression and suicidal behaviors among young Americans since the mid-2000s.

Researchers didn't find the same trend in older adults, with rates of mental distress among those ages 65 and over dropping slightly. This suggests there may have been a "generational shift" in mood disorders rather than a rise across all ages, wrote the authors of a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Social media, which can eat away at sleep, could be to blame, the team believes.

Between 2005 and 2017, the rate of 12 to 17 year-olds who experienced a major depressive episode in the past year rose by 52 percent, from 8.7 percent to 13.2 percent. In young people ages 18 to 25, the percentage with depression rose by 63 percent, rising from 8.1 percent in 2009 to 13.2 percent in 2017. And young adults affected by serious psychological distress in the past 30 days rose by 71 percent from 7.7 percent in 2008 to 13.1 in 2017. That included feeling nervous, hopeless, restless or fidgety; so sad or depressed "that nothing could cheer you up"; like that everything was an effort; and feeling down on yourself, no good, or worthless. Meanwhile, the rate of 18 to 19 year olds who had suicidal thoughts, plans or attempts rose from 8.5 percent in 2008 to 12.4 percent in 2017.

Women and girls appeared to be at particular risk of mood disorders. For instance, in 2005, 13.1 percent of girls ages between 12 and 17 years old had experienced a major depressive episode in the past 12 months. That rose to 19.9 percent in 2017, or nearly one in five girls.

The study was based on nationally representative data on 611,880 adolescents and adults from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which includes individuals ages 12 or older. The researchers analyzed data on a total of 212,913 adolescents between 12 to 17 years old from 2005 to 2017, and 398,967 adults ages 18 and over from 2008 to 2017.

Jean Twenge, lead author of the study and author of the book iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happyand Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, told Newsweek: "I was most surprised by the large increase in mental health issues between 2016 and 2017. The trend in mental health issues was already substantial, but this further rise meant that in some age groups depression and suicide attempts doubled between 2008 and 2017."

However, Twenge said it was important to remember the study is limited to the U.S. and only explores the mental health disorders included in the survey.

"The measures of depression, psychological distress, and suicide-related outcomes are based on self-reports of symptoms. However, we also examined suicide rates, which are not subject to self-report biases," she said.

Twenge said the study did not provide a definitive cause for the spike, but ruled out economic shifts including the Great Recession and other including inequality and changes to the job market, along with academic pressures.

"But there was one change that impacted the lives of young people more than older people—the growth of smartphones and digital media like social media, texting, and gaming," she said.

"Older people have used these technologies as well, but their adoption among younger people was faster and more complete, and the impact on their social lives much larger. The way teens and young adults spend their leisure time has fundamentally changed: They spend less time with their friends in person and less time sleeping, and more time on digital media."

The decline of sleep is a major risk factor for depression and suicidal thoughts, said Twenge.

"In previous research, we found a sudden increase in teens not getting enough sleep right around the same time—about 2011 or 2012. Many studies have found that spending too much time on screens, especially right before bed, is linked to not getting enough sleep."

Dr. Moira Rynn, an expert in pediatric mood and anxiety disorders at the Duke University School of Medicine who was not involved in the research, told Newsweek the study was well thought-out and designed.

Further exploration is needed to understand why girls appeared to be at higher risk of developing depression and anxiety, she said.

"I share the author's concerns that the rise of social media may be contributing. There is research to suggest girls may experience more cyber bullying and shaming than others. Also, it has long been known in psychiatry the need for 12 hours of sleep for adolescents and there has been a continued decline in them receiving it."

Rynn pointed out it was not clear from the study whether the warning placed on antidepressants by the FDA stating they are associated with a risk of suicidal thinking, feeling and behavior in young people is leading providers to not prescribe antidepressants and possibly contributing to a lack of adequate treatment.

Dr. Sterling Ransone, a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek the study does not prove the relationship young adults have with electronic communication and digital media causes mental illness.

"Since many of us fear things that we do not understand or do not control, concern among parents regarding daunting new technologies and social media use of our children is high."

He continued: "Remember that it is tough to be young. Stressors which were not even dreamed about 30 years ago are affecting our younger generations negatively.

"The young brain does not reach maturity until approximately 25 years of age. This data correlates with that and shows that in our current society, those young brains are reacting to today's stressors in negative and maladaptive ways."

Earlier this year, a separate study found teenagers who use cannabis could be at a higher risk of attempting suicide and experiencing depression.

Worldwide, cannabis is the most popular drug among teenagers, the authors of a study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry noted. To investigate the potential mental health risks of using marijuana, researchers pored over 11 existing studies, featuring a total of 23,317 participants.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours, every day. If someone you know appears to be contemplating suicide, visit for assistance.

This article has been updated with comment from Dr. Sterling Ransone.