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Technology Fueled America’s Youth Mental Health Crisis, But It Can Help End It

By Dartmouth University President Sian Beilock:

By the time the U.S. surgeon general declared that we were in the throes of a mental health crisis in 2021, suicide attempts had risen 51 percent for young girls compared with two years prior, and twice as many young people reported feeling depressed and anxious. While the pandemic tipped the scales, the mental wellness odds had already been slipping out of our favor for the past decade.

As many experts have rightly noted, this is also the time frame social media use and mobile device ownership skyrocketed. Today 97 percent of Americans own a mobile device, and 72 percent use at least one social media platform. Years before the pandemic drove kids’ screen time up by 52 percent, psychologist Jean Twenge wrote for the Atlantic that “iGen,” born between 1995 and 2012, was a “lonely, dislocated generation,” pointing out that time spent on smartphones had replaced time-old adolescent activities such as spending time with friends, dating and even driving.

Twenge isn’t wrong; nor are the many other voices calling for smartphone bans in schools or legally imposed age limitations to access social media. But I worry what gets lost in the conversation is that the most groundbreaking tools emerging to improve mental health care rely on these same platforms. Technology, in fact, may offer the only viable solutions to beating the mental health crisis.

As a cognitive scientist and president of Dartmouth, I have a front-row seat to how students are adapting to an increasingly digital world — sometimes in ways that can be dangerous, but also in ways that can foster the very things technology is accused of diminishing — including engagement, connectivity, and mental well-being. Beating the mental health crisis will require meeting kids where they are — on their devices.

Part of the reason we can’t do this without technology is that we simply don’t have enough mental health professionals. Of the 2.7 million young Americans experiencing severe depression, only about 28 percent are receiving consistent treatment — and that figure is lower among young people of color. What’s more, there are only 14 practicing child and adolescent psychiatrists for every 100,000 children in the United States, so it’s no wonder so many are falling through the cracks.

Read the rest of the article in The Washington Post.