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The Collapse Of Teen Mental Health — And Deadly Mass Shootings — Can Be Traced To One Single Trend

(Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
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The start of the mental health crisis in the United States, particularly among young people, can be tied to an exact era in time: the advent of social media and smartphone technologies.

A review of key indicators of despair over time in the U.S. — including suicide rates, drug overdoses and reports of anxiety — shows that the intensification of America’s mental health decline coincides almost perfectly with the invention of smartphones and the popularization of social media. The number of mass shootings, especially those conducted by young males, also ticks up in the same time period.

The first iPhone was released in the United States in June 2007. Facebook was opened up to anyone aged 13 or over in 2006. Instagram launched in 2010, and the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were released in 2005 and 2006, respectively. The mental health of teenagers and young adults has plummeted rapidly since the mid-2000’s, as screen time and social isolation have skyrocketed.

One key indicator is suicide rates. The crude rate of suicide in ages 15-24 tripled between 1950 and 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but then began to decline until the early 2000’s. That’s when it shot back up again. In 2000, the rate was 10.2 per 100,000. It remained relatively stable, ticking up slightly to 10.5 in 2010, before surging to 14.5 by 2017.

When the age range is expanded to 10-24, the trend is even more stark. “After stable trends from 2000 to 2007, suicide rates for persons aged 10–24 increased from 2007 (6.8 per 100,000 persons) to 2017 (10.6), while homicide rates declined from 2007 to 2014 and then increased through 2017,” a 2019 report from the National Center for Health Statistics reads.

The downturn in homicides is notable as well; young people haven’t become more violent overall, just more violent toward themselves. The suicide rate among this age group didn’t surpass the homicide rate until 2010.

During the rise of social media from its infancy to the dominant place it holds in society today, youth anxiety rates rose with it. The National Survey of Children’s Health found that the number of people between the ages of six and 17 who had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder surged by 20% between 2007 and 2012. Back in 2003, just 4% of kids had been told by a health professional that they had signs of a problem with depression or anxiety.

There isn’t only a correlation between young people feeling depressed and the popularization of social media, smartphones and online video games. There’s a measurable behavioral change as well. (RELATED: Man Who Allegedly Threatened Mass Violence Toward Elementary School Arrested)

From the 1970’s until the late 2000’s, the number of high schoolers who said they saw their friends face-to-face “almost every day” was on the decline, but only slightly. From 1990 until 2005, with slight variations based on age, the proportion dipped from around 50% to around 45%, according to a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. However, starting in 2010, the share fell off a cliff: from around 40% to barely above 25% just seven years later in 2017.

The same study found that the portion of teens who said they feel lonely “a lot” of the time was actually on the decline until 2007 — the year the iPhone was released — at which point it now began a rapid increase to now all-time highs. On average, today’s 10th graders report going to 17 fewer parties per year than their peers in the 1980’s.

Tragically, these trends among young people — as well as older adults, measured via metrics like drug overdoses — map onto a timeline not only of technological innovation, but mass shootings. Ten of the 13 deadliest mass shootings in modern American history have taken place since 2007. Four of the five deadliest took place in the social media age, since 2012. When it comes to school shootings specifically, nearly all of the deadliest, with the exception of Columbine, have happened in the past 15 years. (RELATED: Overdose Deaths Soared In 2021, Especially In Teens)

These trends of despair don’t only manifest themselves in violence against the self or others. Drug overdoses in 15-24 year-olds were relatively flat from 2006-2009 before beginning a steady uptick, reaching all-time highs in recent years, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. The average time spent in front of a screen has surged in recent years for young people, and obesity rates in teens have jumped in the same time frame, starting a significant uptick in 2010.

Researchers have dismissed any direct connection between violent video games and mass shootings, and there are tens of millions of American kids who use social media and don’t harm themselves or others. But overlaying the timelines of America’s mental health decline, technology use and mass shootings reveals a correlation too strong to ignore.