Politics is not usually a good mix with health issues. Politics can tend to make us all stupid. What does politics have to do with the rising rates of youth depression, anxiety, and even suicides? First of all, it shouldn’t have anything to do with that, but it does. Bigly.
Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times pointed out that a recent study showed that adolescents who leaned left were experiencing a greater increase in depression than their conservative peers. While girls were more likely to be depressed than boys, liberal boys had higher rates of depression than conservative girls? What does that mean?
According to Goldberg,
“It’s long been known that liberals tend to be more depressed than conservatives, which you can interpret as either a cause or an effect of their unhappiness with the status quo. But innate factors couldn’t explain why, among the 12th graders the study examined, the gap in depressive symptoms between liberals and conservatives appeared to be growing. Nor could those factors explain why, after several years in which liberal girls and liberal boys endured roughly equal rates of depression, girls who identified as liberal had started having a much harder time.”
Some felt the girls who leaned left politically might just be experiencing a natural reaction to the many problems in society—growing sexual assaults against women, climate change, continued prevalence of misogyny and discrimination against women and girls. There is much to be depressed about in other words. After all it could hardly be surprising if those immediately affected by sexual violence or discrimination felt it most keenly. You might say it would be irrational not to be depressed or anxious or both. As Goldberg acknowledged “the notion that Trump’s America was a psychologically unhealthy place for young women resonated with me…”
Like Jonathan Haidt, she noticed the significance of 2012 for the rise of anxiety and depression among young women and girls. 2012 was the year of the shooting at Sandy Hook where very young school children were massacred. But it was also the time of Barack Obama’s re-election which no doubt cheered liberals. In 2013 the US Supreme Court extended gay marriage rights. It was happy times for liberals! Why would this lead to despair?
She consulted with Jean Twenge a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of the 2017 book iGen, about the deleterious psychological effects of social media. Twenge had preliminary data that showed that liberal teenagers spent more time on social media spent more time on social media than their conservative peers. Her data also showed that boys tend to spend more time on screens than girls because in large part they spent more time on video games.
There was another interesting thing in her data. She had found that there were also increasing rates of loneliness among teenage girls. Would politics make them lonely? That seemed weird.
Remember the data I have already flagged in an early blog post. The recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (‘CDC’) showed serious rises in adolescent girls experiencing greater feelings of sadness and hopeless, and almost a quarter made a suicide plan. As I mentioned earlier too, Jonathan Haidt’s data showed this could not really be attributed to the pandemic. The effects of Covid-19 were not that great.
Some have emphasized the sexual violence against women. That is a big problem. According to the CDC 14% of high school girls said they had been forced to have sex. Nearly 20% had experienced sexual violence. Taylor Lorenz writing in the Washington Post said the big problem was not phones but rather “the fact that we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic.” A feminist writer Jessica Valenti claimed that depression is a natural reaction to a misogynistic society. She wrote, “The real crisis, the problem that needs fixing, isn’t girls’ mental health… In the midst of all this violence and dehumanization, their depression is actually very reasonable!”
All of these are relevant and no doubt contribute to the problem but as Goldberg, Twenge, and Haidt all point out the data all shows that in about 2012 severe declines in mental health of young people were occurring in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. Can that be a coincidence? And remember that is exactly when the data also shows youth were turning to the new social media available on their phones!
As Goldberg summed up,
“Technology, not politics, was what changed in all these countries around 2012. That was the year that Facebook bought Instagram and the word “selfie” entered the popular lexicon. As Twenge showed in “iGen,” in 2009, fewer than 60 percent of eighth-grade girls reported near-daily use of what were then called “social networking sites.” By 2014, more than 80 percent did”
And it wasn’t just that youth were fascinated by new technology. It really was changing their lives in profound ways. As Goldberg said,
“Social media didn’t just cut into offline socializing. It precipitated a revolution in consciousness, in which people are constantly packaging themselves for public consumption and seeing their popularity and the popularity of others quantified. It’s not shocking that this new mode of existence would be particularly fraught for those in a stage of life where both fashioning the self and finding a place to belong are paramount.”
And then of course there is the scientific research itself. Working together, Professors Twenge and Haidt maintained a Google document in which they collected studies on social media and mental health and even permitted their critics to contribute to it. Jonathan Haidt said “55 studies in their review found a significant correlation between time spent on social media and mood disorders, compared with 11 that found little or no correlation. Other research suggests a causal relationship.”
One study in the American Economic Review had some amazing data about Facebook. It was introduced on various college campuses at different times and this study found that “The introduction of Facebook at a college had a negative impact on student mental health,” it found, presenting evidence that Facebook fostered “unfavourable social comparisons.”
The evidence makes it very difficult to deny the serious adverse affect of social media. And politics can supercharge the problems.