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Jean M. Twenge: The pandemic among young people

Wednesday 10 February 2021

Life spent in digital spaces might have made young people especially well prepared for lockdown. But it didn’t – they’re bearing the brunt of the mental anguish

“2020. Very bad. Do not recommend,” reads my teenage daughter’s favourite t-shirt, helpfully illustrated by one star out of five.

The way it’s going, 2021 doesn’t have a whole lot to recommend it, either.

That is especially true if you’re a young adult, the generation born between 1995 and 2012 whom I call iGen in my book of the same name.

That’s not just perception. The US Census has been surveying thousands of Americans every week since April 2020, and one result has been consistent: more young adults are experiencing anxiety and depression than any other age group. In late October and early November 2020, an incredible 51.7 per cent of 18-to 29-year-olds were experiencing clinical levels of anxiety, compared to 21.3 per cent of those in their 70s.

The same was true in the UK: according to a study published in The Lancet, 36.7 per cent of 16-to 24-year-olds experienced clinically significant mental distress in April 2020, compared to 17.6 per cent of those over age 70.

In some ways, this is paradoxical: older adults are the age group most likely to experience severe illness and death from Covid-19. Younger people seemingly have the least to worry about, at least from the virus itself. So why are young adults suffering more?

Part of the discrepancy is surely due to economic stresses. Young people were more likely to lose jobs during the pandemic than older people, especially since more of them work in service jobs more impacted by the shutdown. Staying at home under lockdown orders is also more difficult when you’re young and you just want to be out with your mates.

But there’s another important factor: young adults were suffering from a mental health crisis even before the pandemic hit. 2020-21 and Covid-19 are the top of a curve that didn’t flatten, layering a crisis on top of a crisis for iGen’s mental health.

To understand the depth of the current mental health crisis for young people, it helps to understand the trends in mental health in previous decades, before iGen was on the scene. Trends in young adult mental health were not always so negative. Despite 9/11, the Iraq War, and the other indignities of the 2000s, mental health among young adults was stable or even improving during most of the 2000s. In the US, the young adult suicide rate actually declined from the 1990s to the mid-2000s.

And then, things changed. Around 2012, mental health issues among young people began to soar. Depression and mental distress spiked upward in both the US and UK, even as mental health among older adults was relatively stable. The number of young people admitted to hospital for intentionally harming themselves doubled or tripled in both the US and Canada. In 2018, the suicide rate for young people reached at all-time highs. And this was before lockdowns, before the illness and deaths from Covid-19, and before anyone outside epidemiology knew what “social distancing” meant.

The question is: why? It wasn’t the economy. At least in the US, the economy was steadily improving during this time (from 2012 to 2019), with unemployment declining every year. Income inequality – the wealth gap between the rich and poor – increased the most between 1980 and 2000, not after 2012. Other concerns, such as climate change and school shootings, have been around since the 1990s if not the 1970s, and are less likely to impact mental health than everyday experiences. For an event to explain the mental health trend, it would have to begin in the early 2010s and get progressively worse every year.

As it turns out, there was one very large change to young people’s everyday experiences in the 2010s. Around 2012, young people started spending less time socialising in person – between 20 minutes and an hour less a day on average, which adds up to hundreds of hours less a year spent with mates in person. That is not a good formula for mental health: in-person social interaction is linked to happiness and emotional closeness to others in a way that digital and virtual communication can’t replicate. Thus, the story goes like this: as smartphones and social media became increasingly popular after 2012, young people started spending less time with each other in person, and their mental health suffered.

And then came the pandemic, with stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and bars and restaurants shuttered. In some ways, you could argue that young people were better prepared for the shutdown of in-person social interaction during the pandemic – after all, they had perfected the art of communicating digitally. It’s almost as if iGen were in dress rehearsal during the 2010s, continuously on group texts with friends, using video chat, and curating their Instagram pages, preparing for the social distancing no one knew was coming.

There are a few ways mental health during the pandemic could have turned out. If young people were used to digital communication and content with it, their mental health might have suffered less than others’ during the pandemic. Instead, they suffered more. Why?

One answer is this: it is difficult to cope with adversity when your mental health is already compromised. In 2019, more than 15 per cent of 18-to-25-year-old Americans were experiencing clinical-level depression. Given the usual pattern of mental health disorders, that means many more than 15 per cent were dealing with non-clinical but still very significant symptoms of depression, anxiety, and mental distress. That is a shaky foundation on which to build the stresses of a pandemic. When you are barely holding it together and the whole world shifts under your feet, something is going to break.

The shift in socialising from in-person to digital before the pandemic might also be connected to the larger mental health impact on young people. Compared to older generations raised in a less digital time, young people might not have had as deep a reserve of emotionally close relationships built through in-person social interaction. Digital interactions, although numerous, may be more likely to build weak ties than strong ones. It’s hard enough to go from frequent in-person hangouts to Zoom parties; going from Instagram friendships punctuated by occasional meets to Zoom parties is even harder.

Other possibilities have more to do with iGen’s age rather than their unique place in generational history. Younger people are less likely to be married or partnered and thus more likely to live alone, a difficult situation during a pandemic lockdown. Social distancing is a lot more lonely when you don’t see anyone in the flesh on an average day.

Young adults might also be less likely to believe “this too shall pass.” Older generations have seen crises come and go: World War II, the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, the Vietnam draft, political scandals, high crime rates, 9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many millennials – those just older than iGen and born 1980-1994 – lived through the Great Recession just as they were building their careers and came out on the other side. iGen has dealt with the slow creep of climate change and the growth of nationalism, but the pandemic is arguably the first crisis that impacted their day-to-day lives in a significant way, and it’s hard to see that the end will eventually come.

The picture is not all bleak. Young people have adapted remarkably well in many ways. Young nurses and medical students – as well as grocery workers and delivery people – have worked tirelessly on the front lines of the pandemic. Teens still living at home enjoyed more time with their families. US university students’ mental health was relatively stable from 2019 to spring 2020, and fewer binge drank alcohol. Under the principle “if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger,” young people might come out of the pandemic with a more robust ability to cope. In the post-pandemic world of late 2021 and beyond, smaller crises might be seen in better perspective: at least we’re healthy and not in lockdown.

For now, though, we have a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions, and young people are bearing the brunt of the fallout. It is crucial that we recognise this as the crisis it is, and crucial that we take steps to help. Just as the pandemic has vividly illustrated the importance of public health, it has also laid bare the paradox of our age: young people, who should have so much to live for, are in despair, and were even before the pandemic.

As soon as we can, let’s put down our phones and get back to what really makes us happy: being with each other.

Jean M. Twenge is the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University.