When I initially encountered Jane (name changed), who was coming in for psychotherapy, the first thing I noticed about her was that she offered me her hand and gave me a firm handshake. She was sixteen years old and her mother was concerned that Jane was spending excessive time social networking and surfing the internet, while becoming completely disengaged with school. Her mother had concerns about how disconnected and apathetic Jane was. However, as I got to know Jane better, I came to see that her true nature was much more like her firm handshake than the flaccid, apathetic demeanor that her mother was seeing at home. Jane’s essence was that of a bright, sensitive, empathetic and enthusiastic person, who had so much to offer.
Jane told me that she used to be more emotionally expressive with her peers, but had learned to tune it down and act in a more muted way, because they all seemed a little depressed and she felt that she did not fit in if she did not follow suit. She was a tall girl and even deliberately stooped, when with friends, so as not feel so “different.” I suggested that she would be happier if she proudly embodied her tall stature and large emotions and let herself express what she felt. I told her she might even inspire her friends to do the same. She appeared to appreciate this suggestion. Over time, with my encouragement, the flaccid aspect of her behavior started to drop away. She reinvested in school, started to display her fine mind to her teachers, and spoke with confidence amongst her friends, refusing to take their depressive lead. And she was having a grand time discovering all that she could be when she cast aside that depressive shell.
If this was an isolated instance of a depressed friend group and an imitating peer, it would not be a matter of such concern. Unfortunately, it is certainly not an isolated instance at all. Being depressed, disconnected, disaffected, cynical and hopeless is increasingly becoming a social norm amongst a huge segment of today’s youth.
What has caused this epidemic of depression? The causes are obviously many and complex. It is beyond the scope of this article to consider them all. But I would like to highlight some vitally important factors. Focusing on and remediating these factors, would, in my humble opinion, provide a huge step forward in improving the situation. The first factor I want to note is how our behavior and our emotions interact.
Happiness causes us to expand and sadness causes us to contract. We see this in the spreading of a smile across the face as opposed to contracting the face in a frown. Further, it is clinically well known that depression is associated with a stooped, tense, contracted posture, while happiness is quite the opposite in its postural expansiveness. And of course, the constriction inherent in depression is not only in the posture. It also resides in behavior. The depressed person lives in a shrinking world. They venture forth less, decrease their communication with others, and avoid taking risks. But here is the interesting part--behavioral psychology has clearly demonstrated that not only does sadness cause us to contract, but the converse is also true, physically contracting, will quickly lead to feelings of depression. Try it yourself--stoop over, constrict your breathing, and, in order to really get a dramatic result, form your face into a noticeable frown--it won’t take long for you to feel awful. If, in addition, you constrict your world by doing less, talking with people less, and staying glued to your couch... well, you probably will be calling me pretty soon.
So am I saying that our youth are physically and behaviorally constricting themselves and that is what is causing them to be so depressed? Yes. And what is causing them to behave this way? The answer to that is also complex, but let me suggest one very important factor that you likely will find in your own pocket--the smartphone. The data is now compelling: The more time teens spend on screens, the lower their psychological well-being becomes. It is interesting to note that adolescent self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness plummeted after 2012, the year that smartphone ownership reached the 50 percent mark in the United States. Increased screentime is associated with adolescent depression, anxiety, insufficient sleep, inactivity, drinking sugary beverages, and poorer connectivity in brain regions governing language and cognitive control. Further, there are reports linking heavy use of social networking to feelings of isolation.
The advent of the smartphone and the alternative world that it presents to youths has caused both them and their lives to shrink. They have shunk, in terms of their physical posture (stooping over their phones, heads bent forward and down), in terms of their interest in going outside to experience the world (many youth prefer to shut out the world completely--staying in their room with blinds drawn), and in terms of their face-to-face human interaction. No, I don’t mean facetime, I mean actually looking into the eyes of a friend and having a good laugh with them. A bored youth, in an earlier generation, might have gone outside to kick a ball around or wander in the forest with friends or maybe even get a job. In contrast, so many youths today find themselves trapped in a reverse day-night cycle, with shrinking understanding of how the world works or what skills they might need to independently navigate their way through it.
Every word that I have just said applied before COVID. Clinically, I have begun to see how COVID has extremely and painfully intensified the effects described above. America: so many of our young people are bored, frustrated, understimulated, aimless and depressed. Like a muscle atrophying, their passion is fading and they are gradually forgetting the natural evolution of youth, which is to feel pride about attaining increasingly adult skills, so that they will be ready, when they hit their early to mid-twenties, to live independently and make their own mark on the world.
This state of affairs is more than concerning; it is a crisis. America now faces a combination of social unrest, widening divisiveness and polarization over fundamental issues in this American experiment of self governance, as well as economic instability that is likely to get worse and take a decade to overcome. This is precisely the time that our youth need to not be hiding from the world in the quiet security of their rooms.
If I had to put it directly to our youth, I would say this, “The world is changing and you need to be ready for it. In this new, less kind and gentle world, you need to be strong and quick, communicate well, analyze options, seek consultation, make decisions, and find allies who will be there for you (really there, especially when it is not easy). And you will need real world experiences with those people, so you can learn how to read their body language, see the things that your peers try to hide when online and judge their character. I know this is a lot to ask of you. But you don’t need to get a degree in these skills, you just have to be willing to enter the world. Use your body. See how fast you can run and how you become faster and faster if you work at it. And the same goes for your physical strength. And the same goes for your mind. Use it, challenge it. Expose yourself to new ideas. Read books, argue with your friends about them. Watch the news. Ask your parents about what the heck is going on in this world. And if you disagree with them, then argue with them. But don’t just argue. Listen, really listen. The older generation has seen more life than you. They have things to teach you. You might not like some of their values, but try to understand what they are saying before you reject it. One of the most powerful ways to expand your mind is to listen to views you don’t agree with. It will make you really think and challenge you to effectively express why you believe what you do. Get out in the world. Rediscover what the sunshine feels like and how it soothes a tense body. Explore the complexity, richness and diversity existing in the forest down the street. Toss a baseball or throw a frisbee around with friends. Or ask your parents if you can help more in the house. I’m sure they could use it. They are probably really worried about their jobs, income and the future. Get a job. The time may come that you need to contribute to your family’s income. Learn what it takes to go to sleep on time so you can get up on time. Learn what behavior is expected in the workplace. Learn that you can work even if you feel depressed and that, after a while, work might decrease those depressed feelings. Learn an instrument, sing with friends (you can keep it safe--outside, with social distance). Organize a group of real world friends to come up with some ideas about who might need some extra help during the pandemic--family, friends, neighbors. Perhaps you can volunteer to mow the lawn for a family whose father has died from COVID or deliver groceries to the elderly. And if that would be hard to do because you don’t know how to drive yet, then start working on getting that license. The world is changing, and it won’t wait for you to finish that video game or to make just one more snapchat post.”
Michael Milgraum is a licensed psychologist and author, who is in private practice in Kensington, Maryland