by Jordan Roberts
Director of Government Affairs, John Locke Foundation
In this month’s Carolina Journal, I wrote about a sensitive subject to many: mental health. I wrote about a trend that I, and many others, find alarming. That is the trend of our youngest generations developing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or substance abuse issues. From my article:
America’s youngest generations seem to be suffering disproportionately from behavioral and mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. FAIR Health, a health care data firm, evaluated more than 28 billion health care claims filed from 2007-17 from private insurers. Their findings were troubling. Behavioral health diagnoses, including both mental health and substance abuse disorders, increased 108 percent — from 1.3 percent of all medical claims to 2.7 percent. Within the same period, claims for generalized anxiety disorder rose from 12 percent to 22 percent of all mental health claims. The pediatric population, those ages 0-22, was heavily represented in the increased number of behavioral health claims. Generalized anxiety disorder claims from individual’s college and high school age (14-18) rose faster than any other age group in the study. The percent of claims for college-aged students rose 441 percent, while claims for high-school-aged students rose 389 percent.
I don’t believe there is one single cause for this alarming trend but I do believe the combination of increasing technology use and decreasing social capital among our country’s youth is a serious problem:
What’s the reason behind such a trend? My theory is an increase in screen time among young people, which has led to decreased social capital. Described by Robert Putnam is his seminal book, “Bowling Alone,” social capital is defined as “features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve efficacy of society by facilitating coordinated actions.” Putnam’s book examines data to show American’s have become less engaged with each other over time, thus decreasing social capital. I believe the decline in social capital among younger generations due to increased screen time may be contributing to the rising number of individuals with behavioral health problems.
A 2019 study conducted by researchers at the San Diego State University Department of Psychology found a strong link between screen time and lower psychological well-being. More hours of screen time were associated with lower self-control, more difficulty making friends, and less emotional stability. High users of screens were even more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and be treated by a mental-health professional.
This trend has serious implications for the well-being of our youngest generations and their futures. I talk at the end of the piece about the increase in emergency room visits, which contributes to overall health care spending. Another trend is that America’s youth is attempting suicide and hurting themselves more, which is a trend that should concern all of us. Shortly after my piece was published, I came across a study which showed that suicide rates among adolescents and young adults in the U.S. have increased substantially since the early 2000s. From the study:
I do not know what will reverse this trend and I suspect these incidences will continue to increase. This is a troubling trend which we should all be more aware to try and combat it as much as possible.