I prefer to stay away from the word crisis.
It’s an overused word, it’s power diluted by a perpetually scaremongering news media industry hellbent on terrifying us into giving them our attention for every anxiety-oriented tidbit of information.
Turn on the news and you’ll find we have an inflation crisis, a housing affordability crisis, an education crisis, a supermarket supply crisis, a drug crisis, a refugee crisis, a defence crisis, a pandemic crisis, a toxic masculinity crisis, a pornography crisis, a social crisis, a moral crisis, a spiritual crisis, an environmental crisis.... Everywhere we look, we are told we are in crisis. And while some of these crises are over-exaggerated and over-blown, many are having very real effects on everyday Australians, unsurprisingly leading to reports of a mental health crisis.
So do we have a mental health crisis on our hands?
Research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that 43.7% of people have experienced a period of mental illness in their lifetime. Of those, 21.4% have experienced symptoms in the last 12 months. And unlike most illnesses, the people most likely to be affected are youth and young adults, with almost half of females and almost one third of males in the 16-24 year old category experiencing a mental disorder in the last 12 months.
Breaking that down even further, the statistics show that girls are more likely to experience anxiety or suffer from an affective disorder such as depression. On the other hand, boys are more likely to struggle with a substance use disorder. And people who identify as LGBT, who live in a single parent household, or who live in lower socioeconomic areas have an even greater risk of mental illness.
While the fact that more than 1 in 3 teens are experiencing a mental illness is alarming, the data also shows that the rate of mental illness has been fairly stable. In other words, while many teens and kids are in a personal mental health crisis, it appears that Australia on the whole is not in a worsening mental health crisis.
So why does it feel like there is a mental health crisis? Why does it seem that our kids are falling apart? Unable to cope? Angry and distressed and anxious? Why does it feel like kids these days are struggling much more than we did as kids?
The thing is, mental illness is not the whole story. You do not need to have a diagnosis of depression or anxiety to be struggling.
In fact, many psychologists describe a dual continuum of mental wellbeing. On one axis, we have mental illness. Low mental illness means you aren’t experiencing symptoms of mental illness, high mental illness means you are. And on the other axis is mental health. If you have high mental health, you have a generally positive mood and outlook on life and are functionally optimally. You are said to be ‘flourishing’. On the other hand, if you have low mental health, you may feel hollow or empty, and have a generally low mood. You are said to be ‘languishing’.
(Image taken from Keyes and Lopez, 2002).
This means you can be high on mental illness but still experience wellbeing. Anyone with anxiety, for example, knows that even with debilitating anxiety you can still think straight, laugh, find delight in a sunset, or enjoy an intimate moment. You can be high in both, low in both, or high in one and low in the other. They’re not the same thing. Having no symptoms of mental illness doesn’t prevent you from languishing, and it is entirely possible for someone with severe mental illness to be flourishing.
So when we turn from considering mental illness to considering mental health, we find that while most adolescents and young adults in Australia are experiencing moderate levels of wellbeing, less than half are flourishing. And at least 1% are truly languishing, meaning that they’re not mentally ill, but they have low levels of mental health. They’re “meh”. Pervasively and horribly “meh”.
And at that level we find that an alarming 7.5% of young people have seriously considered attempting suicide, and in the last reported year 99 children and teenagers died by suicide. That’s close to two per week. These numbers are sobering. And far too high.
And unfortunately, the rates of psychological distress are rising.
So why are we seeing this decline in mental health in our children and teens?
In this article I’m going to argue that there are 11 predictors of mental ill-health our children are struggling with, and then share ways we, as parents, can reduce or negate the impact of those factors.
1. Social media
This one gets the most blame. In her now-famous viral article which asked “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?”, San Diego University psychology professor Jean Twenge made the argument that since the proliferation of smartphones, adolescent mental illness has increased markedly. Instagram’s own internal research (described in The Atlantic in 2020) showed that, while most users had a positive relationship with the app, one-third of teen girls said “Instagram made them feel worse,” even though these girls “feel unable to stop themselves” from logging on. And Cambridge University scholars found that social media was strongly associated with worse mental health during certain sensitive life periods, including for girls ages 11 to 13.
So it’s an open and shut case? Social media is to blame?
Not so fast.
In a New York Times article examining the issue, Jeff Hancock, a Stanford behavioural psychology professor explained that in his meta-analysis of 226 studies examining the issue of social media and mental health in adolescence, “almost all [show] pretty small effects”.
However, there are problems with the research into social media:
- We cannot do randomised experimental studies on this to find out what’s truly going on. Why? First, the ethics of it. We can’t take kids away from their devices and compare them to kids with devices. Second, the ubiquity of it. It’s entirely impractical to think we are going to find enough kids who don’t have/use social media for a study comparing them with kids who do have it. (Chances are, if they don’t have it, there are other factors at play in their family that would explain more variance in their life outcomes than mere access to social media.) This means we’re doing all kinds of studies that provide less clarity and less evidence of something causing an outcome (in this case, social media causing mental ill-health).
- Measurement issues. Every experimenter wants to measure different variables in different ways. It can be challenging to get good, consistent data on the things we’re trying to understand.
- Time. It takes ages to get a study approved at University level, collect the data, analyse it, write it up, get it peer reviewed, and have it published. Literally 3-5 years at a minimum. What this means is that the social media studies that we are seeing right now are reflections on what social media used to be a few years ago. You’ve probably noticed that social media has changed a lot in that time.
Make no mistake, social media is the scapegoat for our children’s mental health challenges. (And when I say social media, I’m also speaking about gaming, which is increasingly oriented towards social engagement via chat and voice-enabled interaction.) Many people blithely point the finger at a screen and yearn for the days when social media wasn’t so pervasive. High courts have ruled that social media is at fault in the tragic death of some of our young people.
But based on the current research, I think it’s more complicated than simply saying our children’s “addiction” to social media is the problem. Many children use their screens all day long without any measurable wellbeing impacts.
The confluence of individual factors (social isolation, dysfunctional cognitive distortions, and other problems), combined with social media algorithms that prompt compulsive screen use and offer unhealthy, unsafe messages to our children is a problem. But for me, the biggest issue is the loss of agency/choice/volition that our children experience as the algorithm grabs hold of their attention and DOES NOT let go.
So what’s the antidote?
We take action with intention. Perhaps we turn off notifications, remove apps from our devices, or set screen limits and boundaries for ourselves and our children. We might even allow them the innocence of childhood without the perverting influences of social media.
Today’s adolescents are quite possibly the most sleep deprived generation ever, with average sleep duration falling steadily over the last 100 years. Most research suggests that teens should get somewhere between 8-10 hours of sleep per night. Yet many teens get only 6.5 hours sleep. And while there have been fingers pointed at many different causes, screens, games, and social media are a key driver. Parents regularly describe the lengths to which their children will go in order to have access to their screens overnight. With messages pinging until well after midnight and games scheduled in the early morning hours, children are not getting the rest they need.
During sleep the brain removes waste products created during the day. It consolidates learning. It facilitates the body’s rest. Without sleep, emotions are chaotic, brain function is limited, social skills are reduced, impulsivity increases, and behaviour worsens. When sleep is displaced ongoingly, our children become more susceptible to chronic physical and mental health issues. Lack of sleep is a predictor of eating disorders, overweight and obesity challenges, alcohol and other drug use and abuse, reduced school results, and more.
And lack of sleep is a major predictor of mental health challenges.
So what’s the antidote?
Reduce smartphone use around bedtime, implement a consistent bedtime routine, and let your teen sleep in on the weekends! (Yes, really!)
3. Lack of Physical Activity
Movement is a predictor of mental health, and also boosts physical health and overall wellbeing. Kids are encouraged to get at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. However, less than 20% of Aussie kids are meeting that goal.
Statistically, children are significantly reducing their physical activity, engagement in organised sport, free play, and time in nature. The shift is likely to be exacerbated by screens, but there are other factors. These reasons include busy parents, the costs of participation which have been rising steadily, and increasing amounts of homework.
And while we typically consider ourselves a sporting nation, many children drop out of organised sport once they hit their teen years. But even for kids who continue to play sport, we find that organised sport alone is not enough to meet the recommended physical activity guidelines.
So what’s the antidote?
Consider how you can alter your daily routine to enable more physical activity. This could be in the form of walking or riding to school, having more time for free play, or taking a ball down to the park together.
4. Family Breakdown
The heart of resilience is high quality relationships and connection, and family, more than any other structure, is responsible for providing that to children.
Data shows that while the divorce rate is the lowest it has been over the last 50 years, this is most likely a factor of a plummeting marriage rate, with the marriage rate currently at the lowest ever recorded. Many families break down silently, with cohabiting parents more likely to experience separation than those who are married. In total, there is an estimated 25% of families consisting of single-parent or blended families.
Decades of data points to the negative impacts of relationship breakdown in families affecting children. No one walks away from a family lightly. The costs are enormous for all involved. But my question here is why? Why is it so hard for couples to stay together? What is happening in the broader environment that exacerbates this outcome?
So what is the antidote?
I’m not advocating that anyone stay in an unhealthy relationship. But where possible, strengthen your relationship with your partner. And if you do separate, you can minimise the impact on your children by putting their needs first.
5. Reduced Frustration Tolerance
Frustration tolerance is possessing the ability to accept hardship, tolerate it, and push through it without losing the plot. I don’t have hard evidence that frustration tolerance has diminished over time. I’m not sure that such a measure exists or such studies have been done. However, life has become more comfortable, and with comfort comes a sense of entitlement that “things should be easy”.
Today’s children are less likely to be required to do chores, get a job, or persist with activities they don’t like. And coddling parents (as described in Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind) facilitate this reduced tolerance for hard by not requiring it.
The sense of competence and capability that our children experience when they push through something hard and achieve it is a powerful contributor to mental health. Competence is a basic psychological need, but when we limit our children’s ability to develop personal competencies in relation to life skills (or when they complain it’s too hard and we acquiesce), they miss the development and positive outcomes that such activity creates.
So what’s the antidote?
We should allow our children to struggle. This is not a “tough love” approach. We don’t force them to do it all on their own. Instead, we see them in their struggle and, rather than adding to it, we offer gentle support as they work through their challenges.
6. Doing the Inner Work
Developing a sense of identity is integral to healthy human flourishing. This is a lifelong process, but the foundations are built in adolescence.
The proliferation of distraction (primarily through the use of devices for social media and gaming) dilutes the down time required for our children to experience self-examination, introspect their values, and develop a sense of self. Without this inner work and the subsequent identity formation, they remain in a moratorium of sorts with diffuse identity status and questions about who they really are. Our choices to insulate our children from those with differing views and values amplifies the identity issue.
So what’s the antidote?
We should foster relationships with people from all walks of life, and be a sounding board when our kids are exploring their identity.
7. Competition, Comparison, and Being Enough
It’s undeniable that our society has always emphasised and elevated particular ideals. We’ve pushed academic ideals (high grades), physical ideals (a hot body), social ideals (lots of influence and friends), financial ideals (a fancy car and house… with lots of money), and more.
There are gendered expectations around how a body should look, but also how a person ought to behave. Girls are expected to be demure and proper. Boys will be boys. This leads to another area of strain for our children’s mental wellbeing.
So what’s the antidote?
Make sure our kids know that we love them. Tell them regularly that you love them No. Matter. What. And remind them that they are enough.
8. Sexual Pressure
When I wrote Miss Connection: Why Your Teenage Daughter ‘Hates’ You, Expects the World, and Needs to Talk, I was told again and again that girls consistently feel pressured to conform to sexual expectations and behaviours in contexts they don’t feel good about with people they don’t want to be intimate with.
The National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health tells us that 28.4% of high school students have had unwanted sex, with the majority feeling pressured from their partner. And while most reported feeling good the last time they had sex, up to 15% reported feeling emotions such as guilty, worried, and regret. And for teens who haven’t had sex yet, close to half report feeling pressured to have sex, with girls more likely to feel pressure from their partner, while boys are more likely to feel pressure from their peers.
The pressure is real. When a teen acquiesces to the pressure, it reduces feelings of worth and damages wellbeing. Refusal to engage in sexual activity often leads to teasing, bullying, false rumours, or more pressure. Wellbeing suffers here too.
So what’s the antidote?
We need to talk with our children about these challenges in developmentally appropriate ways regularly; early and often. And encourage them to delay, delay, delay.
9. The World is Stressful
When I was a child, I was relatively unperturbed by what was going on in the world. Major world events were not considered in my daily life. I didn’t know about the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, the ozone layer, race relations, environmental issues, and so on. Today’s kids are across all of it. It’s part of their curriculum. Political issues are part of the air they breathe.
This has its positives. We have a generation who are aware of change that is needed and they are willing to work to create that change. But it comes at a cost. Awareness of the political environment is easily internalised.
Then there’s the pressure of school. We’re constantly telling our kids how important their ATAR is. There are concerns about finance and the cost of living, and all of the bad news pervading their lives. The pile-on of negativity and stress is substantial.
So what’s the antidote?
Turn down the pressure that is in your control. Point out the good in the world. Have open conversations about the news they are consuming.
10. Modern Parenting Approaches
In today’s parenting world, control is up and autonomy support is down. Parental anxiety increases interference, impacting the relationship and undermining a child’s sense of competence.
So what’s the antidote?
Yale University’s Child Study Center has developed a new parenting program called SPACE, short for Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions. The idea behind it sounds a little bit old-school. SPACE requires parents to be less accommodating to their children’s challenging moments. If their child is afraid of an animal, parents are told to encourage her to play with animals (young and safe ones). If the child hates vegetables, the parents are told to cook them and help them to eat it anyway. This sounds like a special kind of hell for a parent, and there’s much more nuance and care associated with the implementation of the program, but exposing kids to frustration and believing in their ability to work things out with gentle support will reduce the load on parents (in the longer term) and also help teenagers work out a complex and stressful world.
11. Parental Baggage
Plenty of parents are carrying a heavy load. Work demands are often significant. So, too, are leftover remnants from the way we were raised or from previous relationships. Too many parents are battling their own mental health issues, challenged by alcohol and other drug problems, succumbing to political agendas that undermine healthy relationships, or their own issues related to the pressure-filled, agenda-driven world in which we live.
So what’s the antidote?
We need to take the courageous decision to wrestle with our demons, doing the inner work to overcome our challenges so we can break cycles and stop the intergenerational transfer of parental mess.
The big issue
It’s easy to mistake this article for a pile-on. I could be accused of saying parents are making a mess of parenting and they need to do it better. I guess in some ways that might be an accurate reading. But… that’s not my intention. I want to point to a far bigger issue:
The system - our society - is pulling us away from what we know grows healthy kids… and healthy humans. This article is a critique of a culture that is crushing the very people who dwell within it.
The culture - the lowest acceptable behaviour of the group - places profit over people. This means corporations design algorithms that create attention and focus issues. They use persuasive technologies to draw us to them and keep us there. Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Fortnite, Minecraft, Pokemon… with millions of apps, the list is as seemingly endless as any social media feed. At a technological level, this attentional pull from screens displaces physical activity, relationships, nature, love of learning, introspection, helping others, community.
The culture - the lowest acceptable behaviour of the group - elevates entertainment over examination of the self; the soul. It promotes the shallow; the thin. It keeps us focused on the surface, living like Neo in the Matrix. It demands and demands and demands, reducing our capacity for the contemplative. The culture is an irritant to intention. And we and our children suffer.
The culture - the lowest acceptable behaviour of the group - makes “fast” fashionable. We have built an expectation that we can and should seek instant food, instant pleasure, instant results. Frustration tolerance is limited. Get served a lousy meal? Complain loudly online. Raise your voice. Be heard. The culture of complaint and criticism has diminished us.
A follow-on effect of both of these is that some people are less present in relationships. Technology is not the only culprit here. The relentless pace of a pressure-filled life that places inappropriate demands on couples and families and disregards healthy boundaries tears at the fabric of those things that elevate wellbeing. Financial pressures, academic pressures, “keeping up with the Joneses” pressures… all add to this weight.
Systemically, we are crippling our capacity to do well. The model is breaking us. The proliferation of tech combined with enormous financial and work/school weight are crushing.
However, we are in a system that isn’t changing. Therefore, we have to use the one tool in our toolkit that will move us forward:
The big solution
We ought not be surprised that our children are struggling - suffering - under the cultural pressure that feels suffocating to so many of them. The deck is stacked against them from a wellbeing perspective. Until political leaders develop a level of concern and care that leads to systemic changes (which is unlikely to ever occur), we can only do one thing: focus on what is within our control. As Louise Perry, author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution says, we must “live above the algorithm”.
I’ve already described how we can tackle each of the factors above.
But how can we tackle the big issue of rising above the culture of our society?
We use the strongest tool in our toolbox.
LOVE. We can’t leave the raising of our kids to a society that doesn’t care for them personally. We need to take personal responsibility for our kids' wellbeing, and in turn teach them to take personal responsibility for their own wellbeing. And we do this by being a positive presence in the lives of our children, ensuring they always feel both safer and stronger for our influence. It can help them move from languishing under society’s pressure to flourishing despite it.
But more than anything, it means we live with unconditionality towards our children so that they know we love them, no matter what. This security - given without merit - ensures that our children know they are loved and are worthy of love.