The Kids Are Not Alright: Why Happiness is Declining Among Teens

Why is happiness among teens steadily declining, and what can we do about it?

Why are our kids so miserable? A new article published by Quartz reports that teens are more depressed and anxious than ever.

An analysis of four major studies encompassing 7 million people ranging in age from teens to early 20s was conducted by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Twenge’s analysis showed that:

…high school students in the 2010s were twice as likely to see a professional for mental health issues than those in the 1980s; more teens struggled to remember things in 2010-2012 compared to the earlier period; and 73% more reported trouble sleeping compared to their peers in the 1980s. These so-called “somatic” or “of-the-body” symptoms strongly predict depression. 

Twenge told Quartz that what she found, “indicates a lot of suffering.”

So, the kids are — in fact — not alright. Why?

Peter Gray, a psychologist and professor at Boston College, says that the steady decline of our children’s happiness over the last 50 years is directly correlated to a decline in free play. Gray told Quartz:

Children today are less free than they have ever been…. My hypothesis is that the generational increases in externality, extrinsic goals, anxiety, and depression are all caused largely by the decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time and weight given to schooling.

Twenge does not entirely agree. In her new book, Generation Me, she points out that while we can observe a correlation between increased depression and decreased play, it’s almost impossible to scientifically test for causation.

[Twenge] sees many potential factors contributing to the rise in symptoms and reported feelings of depression: a rise in broken relationships, such as divorce, a shift away from intrinsic to extrinsic goals, which can lead to a sense of not being able to control things, and higher expectations. The percentage of people who expect to get graduate and professional degrees, for example, has surged as have the number of people who aspire to secure a professional job. But the numbers of people getting these degrees and jobs has stayed flat.

Other researchers cite parenting as the reason for the declining happiness of teens over the last several generations. And it’s not so much the absence of an overworked parent, but our oppressive over-parenting when we’re around.

Maybe driven by love, or perhaps a sense of paranoia, some parents are veering toward micro-managing our kids’ every mini-success….At the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum, we may be too evolved to push them toward the Ivy League, but we certainly want them to try their hardest—at everything: school, music, soccer, piano, judo, street dance. We say it’s not all about winning, but celebrate wining in spades. We encourage kids to find a passion—maybe for them, maybe for the college application—and do anything to make sure they are not sitting at home on their phones, or—god forbid, feeling bored.

Still, Gray maintains the answer is giving kids less adult-led structured time, and more child-led unstructured play.

Playing—unstructured time, with rules set by the kids (no adults acting as referee)—is how kids learn independence, problem-solving, social cues, and bravery.

As a parent of a middle school tween whose most recent text described her mounting stress level over balancing homework with being in the school play, I am all for re-aligning homework expectations and allowing more free time.

The growing body of current research clearly indicates that not only does homework do little to help  improve achievement — particularly in elementary in middle school — it adds an unnecessary layer of taxing emotional stress on already over-taxed families.

While parents may well be guilty of having an outsized presence in kids’ lives, I would hazard that it’s not the parents who are unwilling to change for the sake of our children’s mental health. It’s that making meaningful change in our public education system is a lot like trying to give yourself a root canal.

Glacially slow, deeply painful, and nearly impossible.

Source: Quartz, Time