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Why Are Teens Lonelier and More Depressed?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

Meet The Team >

Do Cell Phones Make Teens Lonely?

If you’re the parent of a teen, you’ve probably seen a constant stream of headlines over the past year and a half about teen mental health. The consensus is that we’re in the midst of what laypeople and professionals alike label a teen mental health crisis.

These headlines started before the pandemic arrived – and they weren’t wrong.

Plenty of evidence to backed up the assertions. In 2015, suicide became the second leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults age 15-24. Rates of depression, anxiety, and alcohol and substance use disorders increased with each passing year.

Mental health experts worried – and they let everyone know what they saw and why they worried. Because it’s a fact: according to the available data, teens are lonelier and more depressed than at any time we’ve been keeping records on teen mental health.

That was true before the pandemic, and it’s true now.

Then the pandemic arrived, and the warnings from mental health professional took on an entirely new flavor. Experts predicted the preexisting crisis among teens would become an emergency. They pointed to all the factors related to COVID-19 we’ve heard about all along. The isolation, the absence of typical activities, the lack of direct, in-person contact with friends, peers, and coaches, the absence of most sports, virtual school, missing graduations and proms, they warned, would have an adverse effect on the mental health of our teens.

And they were right.

Data from during the pandemic shows increases in depression, anxiety, and substance use. For details on the COVID-related increases in mental health disorders and stress among teens, please read these articles we published recently:

Teens and Mental Health in the News: The NBC Report

CDC Report – Mental Health ER Visits for Kids and Teens Increased in 2020

Report: Almost Half of California Teens in Psychological Distress

80% of Young Adults Report Depression During COVID-19, Study Says

COVID-19, High School Athletes, and Mental Health

In light of the ongoing mental health situation among teens in the U.S., a new article in the Washington post called Teens Around the World Are Lonelier Than a Decade Ago. The Reason May Be Smartphones caught our attention.

Before the arrival of COVID, were smartphones the cause of the mental health crisis?

We’ll look at the study the Washington Post based their article on – Worldwide Increases in Adolescent Loneliness – and discuss that question now.

What’s All the Noise About?

Here’s a quick recap of our subject.

According to data available from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the study we link to above, teen mental health was relatively stable in the latter half of the 20th century. In the decades leading up to 2012, measures of teen loneliness and depression fluctuated, but neither increased nor decreased in any significant way.

Then, around 2010, numbers began to rise. In 2012, they began to rise dramatically until 2018, the last year researchers collected data for this study. This study is important for several reasons. It’s the only study to date that’s international in scope, has a large sample size, focuses on adolescents, and includes data from middle teenagers (age 15-16) at different points over the past twenty years.

Let’s take a closer look at the structure of the study.

The Teen Loneliness Study: Details

Here’s what the researchers did:

  1. Analyzed data from over roughly 1.1 million teens age 15-16 from 37 countries (51% female, 49% male).
  2. Asked questions on a six-item measure of loneliness. Questions included:
    1. “I feel like an outsider (or left out of things) at school”
    2. “I make friends easily at school”
    3. “At school I feel like I belong.”
    4. “I feel awkward and out of place in my school”
    5. “Other students seem to like me”
    6. “I feel lonely at school.”
  3. Asked students to answer the questions on a scale, with strongly agree at one end and strongly disagree at the other.
  4. Administered the survey in the years 2000, 2003, 2008, 2012, and 2018.

Before we continue, we should mention a couple of things. First, that sample size is massive for a study on teen mental health. A million teens. Second, the study encompasses a time period crucial for our understanding of the effect of cell phone use on our teens. Data collection began before most teens had cell phones and ended after most teens had cell phones.

All that makes for a huge and well-designed study on an interesting topic that most people are curious about. Before we dive into the details, we’ll offer the big picture results.

Researchers found that between 2012 and 2018:

  • School loneliness increased in 36 out of 37 countries analyzed.
  • Worldwide loneliness scores were higher for twice as many adolescents in 2018, as compared to 2000
    • Most of this increase occurred between 2012 and 2018

In light of this data, here’s the question many people want an answer to:

“Why are teens lonelier and more depressed, as a group, worldwide?”

By many people, we mean parents of teens, schoolteachers, policymakers, and anyone interested in teen development, the impact of technology on wellbeing and happiness, and the mental wellbeing of our future generations.

In other words, almost everyone.

Here’s the logical follow-up question:

“Is there one common factor that can explain this worldwide phenomenon?”

Let’s take a close look at both those questions, and the answers the researchers found in their data.

Are Cell Phones to Blame?

Many people believe one obvious development connects these increases in loneliness and depression across the country of origin, socioeconomic status, employment status, and a host of other potentially confounding variables. Here’s the point of view – that includes the one obvious reason – within which the researchers designed their study. These are the words of the researchers themselves:

Some have speculated that the increases in adolescent loneliness and depression beginning around 2012 may be linked to the increasing use of digital media such as smartphones and social media, given that 2012 was the first year when the majority of Americans owned a smartphone and that daily social media use among adolescents reached a critical mass in the early 2010s.”

Based on this correlative phenomenon – the increase in widespread cell phone ownership/use and the increase in teen loneliness and depression – the researchers then formed this research objective:

“Several studies have documented increases in adolescent loneliness and depression in the U.S., UK, and Canada after 2012, but it is unknown whether these trends appear worldwide or whether they are linked to factors such as economic conditions, technology use, or changes in family size.”

We described the structure of the study above, which aims to answer these questions on a global scale. We also included the top-line results, above.

Now it’s time to dive into the details about the increase in loneliness, based on the six-item questionnaire we shared above.

Get ready: there’s a lot of data coming your way.

Percent Increase in Loneliness Worldwide in Teens (15-16) Between 2000 and 2018

The regions/countries with the largest increases included:

  • Orthodox countries:
    • Bulgaria
      • 2000-2018: 140% increase
      • 2012-2018: 84% increase
    • Russia
      • 2000-2018: 46%
      • 2012-2018: 91%
    • Region Average:
      • 2000-2018: 74%
      • 2012-2018: 69%
    • Baltic countries:
      • Latvia
        • 2000-2018: 61%
        • 2012-2018: 50%
      • Region Average: (data available for Latvia only)
    • English speaking countries:
      • Australia
        • 2000-2018: 36%
        • 2012-2018: 62%
      • Canada
        • 2000-2018: 85%
        • 2012-2018: 52%
      • Ireland
        • 2000-2018: 14%
        • 2012-2018: 51%
      • New Zealand
        • 2000-2018: 47%
        • 2012-2018: 66%
      • United Kingdom
        • 2000-2018: 52%
        • 2012-2018: 45%
      • United States
        • 2000-2018: 14%
        • 2012-2018: 82%
      • Language Group Average:
        • 2000-2018: 53%
        • 2012-2018: 16%
      • Latin American countries:
        • Brazil
          • 2000-2018: 70%
          • 2012-2018: 36%
        • Chile
          • 2000-2018: 03%
          • 2012-2018: 79%
        • Mexico
          • 2000-2018: 83%
          • 2012-2018: 98%
        • Peru
          • 2000-2018: 13%
          • 2012-2018: 56%
        • Region Average:
          • 2000-2018: 36%
          • 2012-2018: 53%

The countries/regions with the smallest increases included:

  • Confucian countries:
    • Hong Kong
      • 2000-2018: 00%
      • 2012-2018: 14%
    • Japan
      • 2000-2018: 41%
      • 2012-2018: 70%
    • South Korea
      • 2000-2018: −24.95%
      • 2012-2018: 99%
    • Region Average:
      • 2000-2018: 07%
      • 2012-2018: 75%

As you digest that string of statistics, consider why increases like 140% (Bulgaria), 227.52% (U.K.), 249.70% (Brazil), and 97.14% (U.S.) cause concern.

School loneliness (the opposite of school connectedness and belonging) is a well-established predictor of:

  • Low wellbeing
  • Depression

Low wellbeing and depression are associated with:

  • Lower quality of life
  • Decreased work productivity
  • Increased use of healthcare services

When we look at those numbers, it’s tempting to create a narrative that paints cell phones as the number one cause of increasing teen loneliness around the world. And that’s a scary narrative. If cell phones increase loneliness, which predicts depression and low wellbeing, which in turn predict lower quality of life, decreased work productivity, and increased use of healthcare services, then that means cell phones are bad for our teens and we should think twice about allowing our teens to have them and use them.

However, there’s an important point to make, here.

This data is correlative, not causal.

What’s the Difference?

What that means is that although the increases in the two variables mirror one another over the time period examined, nothing in the experimental design proves one causes the other. Only a controlled trial can prove causation.

The simplest type of controlled trial is called a parallel study. Most of us learned about these in middle school science. For instance, when conducting an experiment on the effect of water on plant growth, you have one group of plants that get water, and one group of plants that do not get water. You run the experiment for a week and make an observation: compared to the plants that got water, the plants that did not get water all died. If there are no other variables present – sunlight, temperature, etc. – you conclude that plants need water to survive.

The study we focus on in this article could not set up their study like that: the logistics would have been impossible. Therefore, what they did was compare the prevalence of cell phone use among teens in a country with the prevalence of self-reported school loneliness among teens, and observed parallel increases over the period studied. Since they did not survey a separate group of teens in each country without cell phones, there’s no basis for saying cell phones caused more loneliness and depression – but there is a basis for identifying a robust correlation between the increase of cell phone use/ownership among teens worldwide and the increase in loneliness and depression in teens worldwide.

Let’s take another look at that data and try to understand why some people are not convinced that cell phones are the reason for more loneliness and depression among teens. This time let’s look at the percentage of teens in each region that report loneliness for the years studied.

Teen Loneliness: Percent Per Region, Worldwide

  • Orthodox countries (Bulgaria, Russia):
    • Region Average (loneliness):
      • 2000: 13%
      • 2012: 73%
      • 2018: 91%
    • Baltic countries (Latvia):
      • Region Average (loneliness):
        • 2000: 29%
        • 2012:00%
        • 2018: 36%
      • English speaking countries (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States):
        • Region Average (loneliness):
          • 2000: 54%
          • 2012: 90%
          • 2018: 65%
        • Latin American countries (Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru):
          • Region Average (loneliness):
            • 2000: 22%
            • 2012: 71%
            • 2018: 34%
          • Confucian countries (Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea):
            • Region Average (loneliness):
              • 2000: 05%
              • 2012: 09%
              • 2018: 07%

We mentioned above that school loneliness is considered the opposite of school connectedness and bonding. Critics of the cell phones are responsible for our teen mental health crisis conclusion point out an inverse interpretation of the data.

Quoted in the Washington Post article, Amanda Lenhart, program director of The Data and Society Research Institute, an independent organization that collects and publishes information on the impact of technology on culture, points out that “most students did no report increased loneliness.”

She’s right.

Quick reminder here: we’re agnostic on this. We don’t have a side for or against cell phones or modern screen technology. We’ve published stories with data that connect screen time to depression and anxiety, and we’ve published stories with data that show that for some people, screen time on cell phones improves mental health.

Now, back to the topic.

Are Cell Phones Really to Blame?

This time, let’s follow Lenhart’s reasoning.

Cell phone ownership among teens in 2021 is over 85% in the US, 87% in the U.K., 70% in Latin America, 80% in African countries, and around 85% in European countries. That’s in contrast to the year 2000, when cell phone ownership among adults in the U.S. was around 28%. We don’t have data for the rest of the world, but we can safely assume that cellphone use among teens across the world was well below cell phone ownership among adults in the U.S.

We’ll generalize by saying that in 2000, most teens didn’t have cell phones, but in 2021, most teens do have cell phones.

Lenhart’s point is this: most teens now have cell phones, but most teens don’t report increased school loneliness. In fact, reading the data the opposite way, here’s the percentage of teens by region that report school connectedness and belonging, rather than school loneliness:

  • Orthodox countries: 56%
  • Baltic countries: 62%
  • English speaking countries: 64%
  • Latin American countries: 68%
  • Confucian countries: 83%

While it’s true that teens in all these regions report substantial increases in school loneliness – any mental health metric that doubles over a decade is well worth paying attention to – it’s also true that the percentage increase in cell phone use and ownership far outpaces the percentage increase in self-reported school loneliness.

However, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the steady increase in teen mental health issues over the past twenty years mirrors almost exactly the steady increase in teen cell phone use over the past twenty years. It’s not a perfect match, but it’s easy to understand why it’s cause for legitimate concern.

Mixed Messages: The Jury is Out

At the same time, it’s also impossible to ignore the data we present from trustworthy organizations like Common Sense Media in our article Common Sense Media: Teen Social Media Use 2012-2018, who reach far different conclusions than the authors of “Worldwide Increases in Adolescent Loneliness.” The researchers from Common Sense Media conclude:

“Most teens, even those who are lower in social-emotional well-being than their peers, are more likely to say that social media makes them feel better rather than worse, eases their depression rather than feeds it, makes them feel less lonely rather than more isolated. This is by no means definitive evidence about the impact of social media, but it is certainly an important component of what we need to know, a critical part of the conversation.”

While that quote is about social media, we can safely apply it to cell phones, because in 2021, it’s difficult to separate the use of one from the use of the other. We include it to make this point: we should listen to the teens. In the Worldwide Loneliness article, we see teens say they’re more and more disconnected from school. The increases are substantial – and we should listen to the stories the teens tell. In the Common Sense article, we see teens say technology is a net positive, not a net negative – and we should listen to the stories they tell.

We’re Here to Help Teens

Neither article discounts nor disputes the fact that among teens over the past twenty years, we see significant increases in depression, anxiety, self-harming behavior, and suicide.

That’s a verifiable fact.

What’s up for debate is the cause.

Is it cell phones?

Is it social media?

Or is it the fact that the stigma around mental health has faded to the point where more and more teens are willing to admit they have mental health challenges?

The data are not clear.

We, however, are clear on one thing: we know our teens face mental health challenges like never before, and we’re here to offer them the help and support they need.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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