28 March 2024

The true cause of rising youth mental health issues

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The true cause of rising youth mental health issues
The true cause of rising youth mental health issues
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What has been going on with young people for the last 20 years? Many of us who have now been teaching for those years have wondered why and how the numbers of young people needing support and mental health intervention have gone up and up and up and up.

According to an article written by Nick Haslem on 18 March, the most recent research conducted by the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing, which was carried out by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, demonstrates that for young people aged between 16 and 24, mental disorders rose from 26% to 39% (especially among young women, which rose from 30% to 46%). It told us that 22% of all Australians had a mental disorder in the last 12 months and 43% would do so within their lifetime. Haslem then goes on to promote Jonathan Haidt’s recent publication, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing Epidemic and Mental Illness, noting the following points.

Haidt attributes the decline in mental health among young people, particularly young women, with the advent and rise of smartphones and social media. Organisations have poured thousands of dollars and much time in recent years for students’ wellbeing with the belief that global pandemics and climate change-induced disasters have been the cause, combined with the reduced stigmatisation around mental health. Now, I am not dismissing at all the impact COVID-19 had on so many, but the data and argument Haidt offers about smartphones and rise in social media from 2007 is quite compelling. Haidt argues that smart phones and social media have really changed young minds, replacing the traditional play-based childhood with social media and phone interactions. He goes into detail about the addictive nature and algorithms designed for our young people who have grown up in a far more virtual world. There is no doubt the decline of young people’s wellbeing and the growth and take up of smartphones is related. What he also goes on to promote is that the research being conducted is global and consistent. Such effects Haidt identifies from this new virtual world of smartphones and social media are:

  • increased social comparisons
  • exposure to adult content
  • sleeping issues
  • a lack of real-life interactions between people that are stopping the development of life skills and connections we have had in the past.

None of the points raised above is a shock or something we have not addressed or realised and the benefits of having information within the touch of a finger to a screen are phenomenal. We can also write in length about the many benefits for humanity. Potentially what Haidt is proposing is that smart phones are the source, social media the cause and a collective action between students, schools, tech companies and parents is required to address the youth mental health crisis. This involves:

  • ensuring real activities (off the phone)
  • limiting screen time (especially at night)
  • banning phones in schools (our Middle School made this step this year which has been highly beneficial – read about this in Deputy Head of Middle School Harry Dendle’s article)
  • enforcing age limits for various social media platforms.

The Anxious Generation comes out on 3 April and I am looking forward to reading it in detail.

Christian Gregory
Deputy Head of Senior School – Student Wellbeing


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