Above Nav Container

The Grauer School Logo

Utility Container

Search Trigger (Container)

Button (Container)

Button 2 (Container)

Mobile Menu Trigger (container)

Off Canvas Navigation Container

Close Trigger (container)

Search

Dr. Grauer's Column - Teen Mental Health Crisis, Redux

Dr. Grauer's Column - Teen Mental Health Crisis, Redux

Teen Mental Health Crisis, Redux
(Including A Book Review of “Generations,” by Jean Twenge)

Last week, in my column, I covered the beauty, health and rapture that are available to our students in the natural world: the light. This week, I go to the dark side: the teen mental health crisis. I hope you will have a look at this with me.

Depression, loneliness, and sadness are experienced by over half our nation’s middle school-aged kids these days, 25% are having suicidal thoughts, and all this is at record levels among all ages of adolescents. Why? What’s going on? What changed?

Stop now. Take a guess before reading on. I bet you already know the truth. 

Dr. Grauer presenting The Grauer School's Surfer-Scholar Award to Sage S. '23, with Athletic Director Trevor Olson - May 23, 2023

10-year-old to14-year-old girls are the group suffering the worst, though all teen groups have increased greatly since around 2012, and the suffering has accelerated since 2019. In studying all this change, the only thing psychologists can find that has changed a lot is the use of cellphones and, in particular, the time spent on social media. (Girls spend the most time there.)

Research aside, many among us already sense that the smartphone is a cause of the above, and it keeps getting implicated. Now, an avalanche of very strong research cited in the new book, “Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents―and What They Mean for America's Future,” by Jean Twenge, PhD, 2023, supports our intuitions and inspires this post. The new Twenge book has the documentation we need right now.

Starting in 2012, a majority of Americans owned a cellphone, 97% of teenagers ages 13 to 17 have at least one social media account, the highest of any age bracket. I’m glad I grew up before all this. Social media has essentially become “mandatory” for kids, and some parents have even fought me when I have directed them to remove these accounts. 

The ascent of social media coincides with a decrease in kids’ (particularly adolescents’) mental well-being and an increase in social isolation. This is what I have come to think of as “the irony of getting more connecting by social media.” Connection is the counter-argument, i.e., in favor of using social media, which I have heard a few times. “I can’t take the Instagram away, it’s all she has!” I have heard desperate parents say, as though it were a drug. Parenting can be hard and conflictual. 

Grauer 7th grade students Leah, Catalina, Arielle, and Nanea enjoying carrots freshly harvested from the school's garden - May 17, 2023

Personally, I have found social media a terrible way to connect, even if it can be useful for informing all your contacts about milestones. I’ve taken the deep dive, and repeatedly concluded, that, to me, sinking into that world feels depressing. I rarely use it anymore, but now this avalanche of research is showing that the masses, and most of our kids, have been impacted in about the same way I was. 

Smartphones and especially social media completely restructure the way our children spend time out of school. Friendships are changed completely. Sleep patterns change completely, too. Now there is a crisis in that particular area, as sleep deprivation has ramped way up since 2012. Looking at a cellphone, especially social media, at bedtime prevents sleep for quite a few reasons, too many to go into in this short column. Surveying shows that The Grauer School's students are not immune: almost 70% of Grauer students report sleeping with phones in their bedrooms, and these students report getting less sleep than students who sleep with their phones in a different room (Challenge Success survey, Spring 2023). This is sure to impact their happiness and creativity, not to mention their future memories of what childhood was like.

Grauer student Inder C. '27, speaking at his 8th Grade Panel Presentation to demonstrate his personal and educational growth during Middle School - May 19, 2023

Let’s take the name of our survey literally: who among my readers is willing to take the challenge to remove their child’s cellphone, even for a couple of weeks, now that you have seen the data? Please. Contact me about it!

Now, at the start of another summer, our kids are facing a lot more open space and less time in classes. There are no classroom cellphone pouches in summer! So, it is a great time to send this messaging out again. Parents want to help the school and, at Grauer, we are blessed with an almost unbelievable amount of parent support. All the same, diving into my files, I can’t find anything I have begged and pleaded for more, or anything that would help the school more, or anything more stunningly researched than getting our kids off social media. We should probably offer free tuition for families who can do this!

An exception to all of the above which I have to own up to despite my desire for kids to throw the phones away is gaming with friends. Online gaming with friends seems to be a reasonable, collaborative, real-time activity where kids can communicate live and engage with their friends. That’s the data talking, not me, because I know it cuts into critical sleep time. Likewise, I need my students outdoors, using their eyes and ears in big, real environments, in groups, in cohorts, even though the findings do not show online shared games to be a part of the above crisis. (Note, they could still be contributing to the decline in youth hearing and vision.)

But there can be no exemptions for social media use. It’s terrible. It’s addictive. It literally appears to be eroding our kids’ sense of courage and sense of control over their own lives.

An award being presented to Lucy B. '27 at The Grauer Archery team's end-of-season celebration - May 10, 2023

An alarming 34% of adolescents report experiencing moderate to severe depressive symptoms almost all the time. If you are a heavy social media user, you are likely depressed. Separating from social media can be hard, of course. Like any addiction, it takes concerted introspection, which middle schoolers and some high schoolers might not be up to on their own. It takes plenty of support from trusted friends and family to unravel the insecurities and fears that drive the need for the constant virtual validation kids seek on social media channels. Some get this support from engagement in scholastic, arts, and/or sports. 

It takes plenty of support from trusted friends and family to unravel the insecurities and fears that drive the need for constant virtual validation kids seek on social media channels. - Dr. Stuart Grauer


Twenge found that low academic achievers suffer the worst of all, perhaps because they are less engaged in school. Online and grazing through the feeds, our kids are not developing much clear thought, intellectual curiosity, or motivation.

Is there hope? Can we control our kids’ cellphone use? Can they? Can we control our own? Who is responsible? Is this on governments, tech companies, or parents? I personally wish our crazy, bipartisan Congress could do almost anything across the aisle, and this would be a good issue for them to agree on, but they won’t even agree to keep guns out of kids’ hands, let alone cellphones. Pessimism and negativity is what “gets traction” on social media, and our government representatives seem to be as impacted by this as our kids, sending out messages of pessimism we all feel. The point is, even though Gen Z’ers are voting at a higher rate than the previous generations, we can’t wait for the government to fix this! (Note: please vote for optimists, whatever party they are in!) 

As for tech company responsibility, the “parental controls” settings they supply might not do much, although there are some healthy habits for smartphone usage, such as settings on time limits and nighttime screens. These are clearly not enough.

According to Twenge’s research, what does do much is the old saw: “No phones in the bedroom.” This is our simple call to action as parents. If you do one thing, and you want to make a huge gift to the school and your child’s summer, implement this. Research shows that this simple action has maximum impact. Gabb phones and flip phones (photos, texts, phone only) can help, also, if you are among the parents who believe your child needs a phone for safety reasons. For kids who like tech in the room, try a white noise sound machine/clock. (I actually like brown noise—try it. And, of course, ocean wave sounds at super low volume.) 

Psychology Today offers some helpful tools for parents as well [1] :

  1. Talk openly with your kids about screen time and social media use.
  2. Help your kids evaluate how they use social media.
  3. Educate your kids about the detrimental effects of screen time and social media.
  4. Be a good example.
  5. Set realistic limits and goals. 

Parents can also refer to the US Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health which is both alarming and extremely informative: https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/sg-youth-mental-health-social-media-advisory.pdf.

Dr. Grauer at a celebration honoring Dr. Kimberly White-Smith, the University of San Diego's new Dean of the School of Leadership and Educational Sciences (SOLES) - May 11, 2023

It seems a tragic thing to me that we have created one of the most leisurely societies in the history of the world, only to have our children squander it engulfed in media that is removing them from life and making them sick. We created child labor laws but have done nothing about this new abuse.

As I explained in last week’s column, if you want to be in happier, healthier places, get outside. Social media is an extremely unregulated world that is bringing damage to our kids and their friends and families. If social media were somehow a physical world, we would never allow our kids there! I know there are some fun exchanges going on, but our kids simply are not making real friends there. They are not! 

I am grateful to the terrific scholar, Jean Twenge, for giving us rock-solid research to support what we know in our hearts to be true. Like guns, social media is a big money enterprise, and we are not likely to find regulation outside of our own homes. For too many kids, social media turns out to be a dark, isolating, and addictive world. Let’s do the right thing this summer. As the country song says, “Keep on the sunny side.”

[1] Social Media Often Makes Teens Feel Even More Alone, Psychology Today, January 18, 2023.

COMMENT! Click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to share a comment.
SHARE! Click on the social media icons below to share this column.

Dr. Grauer presenting The Grauer School's Surfer-Scholar Award to Sage S. '23, with Athletic Director Trevor Olson - May 23, 2023

An award being presented to Lucy B. '27 at The Grauer Archery team's end-of-season celebration - May 10, 2023

Dr. Grauer at a celebration honoring Dr. Kimberly White-Smith, the University of San Diego's new Dean of the School of Leadership and Educational Sciences (SOLES) - May 11, 2023

Grauer 7th grade students Leah, Catalina, Arielle, and Nanea enjoying carrots freshly harvested from the school's garden - May 17, 2023

Grauer student Inder C. '27, speaking at his 8th Grade Panel Presentation to demonstrate his personal and educational growth during Middle School - May 19, 2023

Read More