Mental illness: the words carry a lot of weight to some and a lot of baggage to others. Depending on who you are and where you’ve been, it can be a diagnosis, a death sentence, a political statement, a handicap, a myth, an identity or even a puzzle. To me, it’s a disease—nothing more, nothing less.
A year and half ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression by one of the counselors right here at West Chester University, and the only reason I mention it is so I can put my implicit bias right on the forefront of your brain before you read the rest of what I have to say.
Last week, I read an article from psychology professor Jean Twenge about teenage mental health and its statistical decline between 2010 and 2015. The article can be found on theconversation.com and is titled “With Teen Mental Health Deteriorating Over Five Years, There’s a Likely Culprit.” It’s worth the read, and will illuminate the rest of this piece. The rising prevalence of the issue is certainly alarming; most people I know consider mental illness to be a staple of their high school experience. Twenge goes on to discuss at length several academic articles, including her own, that support her argument in identifying a singular element that can be reduced to improve mental health. That element (surprise, surprise) is electronic screen use.
I’m not exactly stacking this seemingly academic brawl in my favor: depressed, sleep-deprived undergraduate and novice article writer versus a psychology Ph.D teaching at San Diego State with over 100 publications under her belt. But before you call it a knockout, realize that this isn’t a fight. I have full faith that she and I want the same end goal. We want kids to feel like life has a purpose, and that they can contribute to it. We want kids to want to live, want to do good in the world and enjoy the ride through all its craziness and hardship. So more than anything, this is a plea.
The article presents mental health, specifically depression and suicide, as a serious issue. There is no belittling and it even acknowledges that genetic predisposition plays as much of a role as trauma, bullying or family environments. The article primarily argues that reducing screen time would help improve mental health by increasing sleep and social interaction. The premise of the article is simple and straightforward enough. And that’s the problem.
Not to say that simplicity is bad and we need to overcomplicate our discourse in order to tiptoe around making any claims that actually draw measurable conclusions and give practical advice; identifying singular elements that provide another piece to the puzzle is important and valuable. But, you can’t claim that half the puzzle counts as a single piece.
Boiling down the conclusions of five years of correlated data between screen-based technology and depression is a gross oversimplification of both issues. Technology, like screens and the internet, is a tool. Just like a knife is a tool. Both can be used in helpful and harmful ways, and what is important is knowing which is which.
I’m not qualified to say social media use negatively impacts mental health (although, Twenge is, and she presented three studies which suggest exactly that). But, what I can say is that simplifying and overgeneralizing incredibly complex problems and solutions like technology and depression is misleading and irresponsible. Don’t take an aspect of life as broad as screen use, something that has become a requirement in American student and academic life, and say if you do that less, you’ll feel less depressed. Is screen use spent reading, watching films, playing educational games, writing a book or talking with friends all correlated with higher depression symptoms? Or is it more complex than Twenge initially published?
So this is my plea, Twenge, and all psychologists who care about what a screen-loving, depression-having student like me has to say: Please don’t over-dramatize your articles for the sake of having a take away line. Please don’t sweep a complex and necessary aspect of life such as using technology and screens into the category of “maybe bad for you, but definitely not good for you.” And lastly, please listen to what the kids like me have to say. We might not have doctoral publications, but our experiences need to be heard. It just might be the last piece of the puzzle we need.
Alexander Schmidt is a third-year student majoring in English with minors in communication studies and a capella. ✉ AS849426@wcupa.edu.