American teenagers—especially girls and kids who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning—are “engulfed” in historic rates of anxiety and sadness. And everybody seems to think they know why.
Some psychologists point to social media, whereas others blame school shootings; others chalk it up to changes in parenting. Climate-change activists say it’s climate change. Atlantic writers like me blather on about the decline of physical-world interactions. These explanations aren’t equally valid, and some of them might be purely wrong. But the sheer number of theories reflects the complexity of mental-health challenges and suggests that, perhaps, nobody knows for sure what’s going on.
The numbers are undeniable. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the gold standard for measuring the state of teen behavior and mental health. From 2011 to 2021, the survey found, the share of teenage girls who say they experience “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” increased from 36 to 57 percent, with the highest jump coming during the coronavirus pandemic. The share of girls who said they’ve contemplated suicide increased 50 percent in the decade. (For teenage boys, the increase was smaller.)