The Millennial Mental Health Crisis – Why Are Our Youth Depressed?

by Roman King | United States

It’s no secret that teenagers and millennials are having a serious mental health crisis right now. According to a paper published in the medical journal Pediatrics, 11.8% of teenagers in the United States have suffered a major depressive episode at one point in their lives. This is an incredibly startling statistic, considering this rate was just 8.7% in 2005, representing a 37% increase in reported occurrences of major depressive episodes among teenagers. Considering that the same study cited above didn’t find an increase in mental health treatment for teens in that period of time between 2005 and 2016, the realistic rate of depressive incidents and clinical depression among teenagers and millennials in America has likely seen an even larger increase than that.

This is an incredible problem, considering that over 50% of people who commit suicide suffer from major depression, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In regards to this terrible trend of mental illness in the youth community, it would be imperative to try and destroy something so prevalent that it occurred in the majority of suicide victims. To the dismay of the youth and psychologists alike, though, it is nearly impossible to treat something when nobody can point a direct finger to why the most recent generations have been the most depressed in recorded human history — everything from increasing college prices, social negativity, and all the other reasons among them have been pegged as reasons our youth are suffering greatly. Certainly, none of these reasons are wrong — and it’s somewhat ridiculous to generalize such issues to a group as diverse and unique as millennials and teenagers. However, the massive issue has much more to do with behavioral psychology and the unique problems millennial/teenage children have collectively had in their early youth (in the elementary and even early middle school years) than the overly political sociologists in modern academia would perhaps like to admit. The problem is much more primal and begins as young as young as the age of 2, and it’s where all of the emotional imbalance potentially begins — millennial and modern children do not get enough play time at school.

Not Enough Free Play

It is scientifically proven that free, unstructured play time is essential to the well-being and development of children. Unstructured free play contributes to the cognitive, motor, and social development of young children, and it is such an essential part of neuronal development that the same phenomena can be observed in simple rats. In an article by Dr. Steven Schlozman, associate director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry at Harvard (published in Psychology Today), Dr. Schlozman writes that rats benefit from free play by experiencing growth in the frontal lobe which controls decision making and solves problems. That same article also describes the developmental plights of the rat that doesn’t get to play, but instead spends its time in a cage eating and sleeping all day — their brains are not as fully developed as the rats that were able to run around and enjoy adequate free play. There is still more to be said about the peculiar development of these aforementioned lab rats; the younger a rat is exposed to free play, the quicker they develop from it. At a certain age, the rats begin to lose potential value out of their playing, and don’t develop from it. These lab tests showed that it wasn’t possible for rats to compensate for a childhood of unhealthy habits at an older age.

Sure enough, the same phenomena has been be found in human children; they’ve been getting less and less time out playing, and the effects have been markedly negative. According to Dr. Peter Gray, Professor emeritus of Psychology at Boston College, children in 1997, as compared against those in 1981, spent 18% more time at school, 145% more time doing school work, and 168% more time shopping with parents. The prevalence and increase in helicopter parenting has been cited as one huge reason for this decrease in play; Dr. Gray argues that parents are collectively becoming much more protective of their children, which is causing a severe drop off in the amount of children getting to have the unsupervised free time necessary for proper neuronal and cognitive development. Along with the increase in helicopter parenting, the boom of commercial entertainment in the form of television has helped produce a more sedentary generation of children — since 2000, the amount of households with a television in the United States has increased from 102.2 million households to 119.6 million households in 2018, representing a 17% percent increase in this statistic.

The scientific literature is quite clear — television is an incredible cognitive and behavioural depressant. While there are arguments to be made that educational children’s programming can result in better number and shape recognition, children are more likely to watch “normal TV” than educational programs, and the time that could have been spent at play is still lost. The cognitive benefits of children’s programming does not seem to match up to the penultimately important developmental benefits of unsupervised free play. So kids aren’t getting enough playtime with their friends as small children, and it’s obviously affecting the ability of millennials to problem solve, to participate in complex situations, and to cope with negative emotions. That alone doesn’t explain the incredible increase in negative emotions among millennials and teens, though — that just explains why our systems are doomed to go haywire from the start. It doesn’t explain what sets them haywire. For an explanation on that, we can turn to the silicon monster that dwells in our pockets — the rise of the smartphone, and perhaps more specifically what we’re doing with those smartphones.

The Rise of Social Media

2004-2007 was one of the most influential time periods regarding revolutionary methods of Internet communication, and one of the most important points of reference to the modern era of social media and interaction. In that three year period, the way people (specifically millenials and teenagers raised into that culture) communicated was radically and permanently shifted. In 2004, Facebook, one of the first social media applications, was launched in the United States in certain college campuses — you had to have a college email account to sign up for Facebook. Even for college students who did not grow up with it, it was still an incredible change in how people communicated and got information. This didn’t have an incredibly massive effect on the mental health of college students in 2004-2005 (when Facebook wasn’t completely collectively available), because it was a much smaller endeavour than it was when it became fully realized, and because the college students using it were still raised in a way that pointed towards healthier mental development (the spike in television households didn’t happen until 2000, well after the early childhoods of 2004 college students).

This changed in the year 2006, when Facebook became available outside of college communities for the first time. With this change, any 10-year-old could pretend to be thirteen and join Facebook. This on its own was a radical enough change; now that young children much within the range of what I would call the rise of the helicopter parent era were able to access social media (albeit at a limited capacity), their developmentally warped minds now had another social medium to contend with — this strange field where positive emotion was gained from whether or not the mob agrees with you. People post content and get feedback in the form of likes from the general population — a mob, almost. The specific statistics on the negativity of this phenomenon are somewhat unclear, but the psychological consensus is that mob social hierarchies are incredibly negative.

This was already bad enough, but at least those 10-year-olds had to be somewhat intuitive to use their parents’ personal computer to access Facebook. It wasn’t until the iPhone was released in 2007 that things started to get out of hand. Immediately the first iPhone was one of the largest commercial success stories in the history of American capitalism. Even the first iPhone found its way into the hands of children and teenagers (who, from what we’ve already discussed, are more suspect of being critically socially underdeveloped). By 2015, 67% of teens owned an iPhone — by 2017, that number was up to 76%. Neither of these surveys accounted for the moderately sizable minority of teens using Android smartphones, so the percent of teens with a smartphone is likely even higher than that 76% mark. With the development of smartphone technology also came new and shinier ways to fundamentally mess up human social interaction; Twitter was born in 2006 Instagram came along in 2010, and Snapchat followed up just a year after that.


With the developmental problems teenagers and millennials have struggled through in the face of increasingly protective parents, a lack of essential playtime, and the disturbing promotion of sedentary lifestyles, one could expect the rate of depression to increase just from that alone. The smartphone and its constituent social media apps, and the increase in young children being brought up with them (note: I find it incredibly important to state that the negative effects of social media dwindle the older the smartphone owner is — for older teenagers, smartphones are often indispensable methods of contacting people that must be contacted) only makes this problem worse. If you take a bunch of emotionally unintelligent kids who have never been taught any better and give them smartphone, the results won’t be pretty — it’s agreed upon that the presence of these social vices have obvious negative effects on the self-esteem and anxiety rates of teens brought up with them. So what the hell are we to do about it?

The pre-inclined parents reading this, already holding a bias towards technology, might find it apt to use this article as proof that their hypotheses were right after all. Often times, these are the same parents that commit the grave sin of being overbearing on their children, protecting them from the world around their kids. To those like that reading this, I say, hold your horses bucko. I don’t actually think the primary problem is the smartphone. There’s good reason to believe that a majority of the problems stem from your collective inability to raise your children to a healthy standard of experiencing the world. Social media just makes your parental inadequacies ten times more obvious to the rest of the world. Indeed, social media can be a new medium to explore social interactions and contracts to the healthily developed teenager — that is, if that teen is adequate in emotional intelligence, and that’s not a guarantee, with the modern trend of parenting trending towards helicopter-esque.


So what’s the actual answer? There isn’t any one clear answer, sadly — with the preexisting mental volatility of teenagers and the literally infinite amount of environmental factors that can cause depressive episodes in teenagers, there isn’t really a way to prevent children and teenagers from experiencing what can essentially be boiled down to life. Certainly, though, the answer isn’t by trying to shield children from the realities of the real world by refusing them opportunities to play and frolic freely. Instead, parents should allow their kids to play in an unsupervised, unorganized manner. This is how essential problem-solving skills are learned at a young age. An active lifestyle will also help circumvent the many downsides of sedentary lifestyles; physical activity is right behind proper diet in the competition of what blasts away obesity (an incredible mental killer, a massive reason teens have low self-esteem). There is also a case to be had about generally waiting until the later teens to introduce social media and smartphones to children. Generally speaking, though, the mental health of teenagers and millennials is being shot in both feet at a very early age, and it’s hurting us. Suicide rates are up. Depression is through the roof. If we are to improve at all as a society, we must start recognizing the mental illness crisis among the youth and start moving to solve it. We can’t do that unless we actually know where the problem arises from, however, and I tried to flail my arms about and put forth an informed, somewhat academic idea onto the table. This is that attempt. Hopefully, it can be of some sort of help to somebody.