What’s stressing our youth?
Why is it that the incidence of suicides appears to have zoomed in the current generation of young people?
Japan saw the worst suicide rate for people under 20 years old in 2018, according to a government report. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the suicide rate among people age 10-24 years old climbed 56 percent between 2007 and 2017. New Zealand topped the list of countries with high incidence of suicides in the 15-19 year age group, according to a 2017 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, with an observed 70-percent jump in demand for suicide counseling services in the past decade. In Singapore, the Institute of Mental Health reported that their clinics saw an average of about 2,400 new cases of teenagers seeking help for school-related stress every year from 2012 to 2017. Similar data can be found for many more countries just by scanning the internet.
Here in the Philippines, the World Health Organization reported that the suicide rate per 100,000 population among Filipino males rose from 4.5 to 5.2 between 2000 and 2016, while that among Filipino females increased from 1.8 to 2.3. A survey of Filipino high school students age 13 to 17 years taken in 2015 revealed that 17 percent had attempted suicide in the previous year, with another 12 percent having thought about it. In my own town of Los Baños, there is open knowledge at the University of the Philippines campus here of a historically unusual surge in suicides, suicide attempts and emotional stress among students not seen in past years.
A recent Inquirer article dealt on an observed mental health crisis among Filipino youth. It cited anecdotal evidence and observations by practicing psychiatrists pointing to a dramatic upsurge in depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies among young Filipinos. But as seen above, this is a phenomenon not unique to the Philippines (although not necessarily observed in all countries). In the case of Japan, what is interesting is that even while the general incidence of suicides has been falling, that among young people has been rising significantly.
What is pushing today’s youth into mental and emotional stress and suicidal tendencies, apparently much more than their predecessor generations? Psychologists here and abroad have been gathering data for years to analyze the phenomenon, and a common thread among their findings appears to be online social media. In a 2017 article for The Atlantic magazine, psychologist Jean Twenge noted abrupt shifts in American teen behaviors and emotional states around 2012. “The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs … In all my analyses of generational data —some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it,” she wrote. She noted that the first smartphones came out in 2007, and five years later “was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.”
A 2017 study published by the Association for Psychological Science also found that adolescents who spent more time online —such as social media—were more likely to report mental health issues.
With the Filipinos’ reputation of spending the most average time daily (around five hours) on social media worldwide, it should be no surprise, then, that we have seen a similar upsurge in emotional illnesses that are observed to be correlated with such exposure. It’s not necessarily social media per se that drives young people to depression, but when coupled with lack of a family and social environment that fosters satisfactory relationships, the young person becomes highly vulnerable.
Social media addiction itself often leads, ironically, to social disconnectedness, as direct contact and relationships may be shunned in favor of online, and less personal, interactions. Adolescents reared by their parents in an overly sheltered or pampered way may also end up being less resilient to stress. But ultimately, human well-being is all about positive and meaningful relationships, and parents would do well to make sure their children grow up in an environment where these are not compromised.
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