Why Are Teens Suffering? |

5 min read

A cascade of data has shown that modern youth are facing very significant mental health problems. Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, screens have come to dominate people’s lives. This is especially true for vulnerable adolescents, enmeshed 8-plus hours a day in social media, gaming, and other online activities.

Correspondingly, since 2010, levels of anxiety and depression have soared (on average) in internet-connected youth around the globe (Twenge, 2018). Coincidence? Many think not, including parents, who are very worried.

Perhaps the main problem is this: Given a zero-sum 24-hour day, more online time necessarily “crowds out” (Frey, 1997) offline time in the real world, where adolescents must learn how to lead satisfying lives. By spending so much time online, contemporary youths may be missing out on critical developmental opportunities, while also possibly becoming more self-focused and even narcissistic (Twenge, 2018).

I propose that a primary cause of the youth mental health crisis is the substantial absence of challenge and meaning in their offline lives, compared to prior generations. This drives them further online, in a vicious cycle. Young people are spending too much time “comfortably numb” (to quote Pink Floyd’s 1979 song), rather than taking risks out in the world, where things matter. As Bruce Springsteen’s (1992) song presciently observed, “57 channels and nothing’s on”—a stark commentary on the ultimate emptiness of ubiquitous digital content and digital content consumption.

Of course, online content can be illuminating and fascinating and is essential to the modern world. But it may also be a siren song, luring bored or vulnerable youth into the rocks.

Missing Intrinsic Motivation (Challenge)

What are challenge and meaning? As background, we need a quick dive into the best-supported theory of motivation, self-determination theory (SDT). Starting back in the 1970s, SDT demonstrated the importance of intrinsic motivation—doing activities because they are interesting, challenging, and enjoyable. Intrinsic motivation is the prototypical “self-determined” motivation, where we feel like we are causing our behavior. When we’re intrinsically motivated, we’re often in “flow” states, which hone and improve us. We are alive, engaged, and involved—and, as a result, we do our best.

Much data show declining youth well-being and self-esteem since 2010, but, to my knowledge, no research has evaluated declining intrinsic motivation over that time. However, in a sample of 40,000 U.S. children and youth, Twenge and Campbell (2018) found that, especially in teenagers compared to children, more screen time was associated with less curiosity and less interest in learning about the world. These are the two core features of intrinsic motivation. High screen use was also associated with less self-control, more distractibility, and more difficulty making friends. In a different, multi-cohort study, Twenge, Spitzberg, and Campbell (2019) confirmed that screen time crowds out (or “displaces”) time in the offline world, to the detriment of youth in 2016 compared to those in the late 1980s.

Missing Identified Motivation (Meaning)

Obviously, not everything can be “fun.” Thus, in the 1990s, SDT researchers began studying a second form of self-determined motivation: identified motivation, in which the activity feels important and meaningful, even when it isn’t challenging or interesting. Identified motivation is how we express our values in the world, and really helps when the going gets tough, painful, or tedious, as shown in my 2019 study of Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers. Both types of autonomous motivation, intrinsic and identified, are good for our mental health—the more, the better.

Have contemporary youths declined in identified (i.e., meaning-based) motivation within their lives as a whole? No direct evidence for this exists, besides the general increase in depression, which typically correlates with lack of meaning. Also, there is no direct evidence that increasing screen use reduces youth’s identified motivation for life in general.

Still, in our lab, we’ve recently collected very relevant data. In a study of 200 college students, we compared peoples’ motivations for three types of activity in their lives: (1) social media usage, (2) face-to-face interaction with others, and (3) solitary time or activity. The results were fascinating.

The differences were most dramatic for identified motivation, which is doing something because it is meaningful. For our participants, the average identified motivation score for social media use was only 2.30 out of 5 (where 2 was “a little bit of identified motivation”), versus 4.25 for face-to-face interactions and 4.13 for solitary activity (where 4 was “much” identified motivation and 5 was “very much”). This two-point deficit between social media use and the other two activities is a huge and highly significant effect.

Motivation Essential Reads

What about intrinsic motivation, doing something because it is enjoyable and interesting? Participants reported the least intrinsic motivation for social media use (3.76 out of 5). They had the most intrinsic motivation for face-to-face interaction (4.26 out of 5), and a middle amount for solitary activity (3.98 out of 5; all differences significant). Despite this, they spent the most time on social media, which, again, was the least-fun activity.

Together, these results suggest that young people today spend the majority of their time doing things that aren’t at all meaningful and that aren’t really very fun, either. “57 channels and nothing’s on!”

Barriers to Change

If people’s online lives are so unsatisfying, why don’t they break free of their screens? This raises the pernicious problem of compulsive internet use, in which what started out as novel and interesting has become entrenched, as a coping mechanism against boredom or a salve against anxiety. When one is lodged in a low-energy, unsatisfied state, it is difficult to conjure up the internal resources to escape the trap. Thus, the default short-term coping mechanism (go online!) begins to compound, rather than resolve, the underlying problem (missing challenge and meaning). Of course, establishing such dependencies is the basic business model of social media companies, and they have become very good at it. Welcome to the machine (as Pink Floyd put it, back in 1975).

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