Don’t blame smartphones for young people feeling depressed. The problem goes deeper

    21 September 2015

    At a student bar a few weeks ago, a friend told me they’d been struggling with depression for some time. There was no particular reason for this; they just had a sense of hopelessness. Many other people my age have told me the same thing. They feel anxious, down, and lost. Often this is confusing even to them. Is this just part of growing up? We’ve read some Sartre and suddenly we’re existentialists? Or, more worryingly, are we (let’s say 16- to 25-year-olds) all genuinely miserable?

    A recent report found that English children (10- to 16-year-olds) were less happy than their international counterparts. Alexander Chancellor, in his Long Life column, blamed smartphones and cited research that found a link between depression and smartphone/social media dependency. (A study published last week came to the same conclusion.)

    A closer look at the report reveals some interesting findings. Children’s most cited worry, after friends, is family. When it comes to children’s ‘satisfaction with family life’, England ranks 12th out of 15 countries. Of course, the idea that children are better off with stable families is not groundbreaking. But when we consider that the success of countries like Norway is largely attributed to high social capital and strong communities, this oft-cited worry is worth examining.

    According to a study by the Prince’s Trust, one of the key issues for 16- to 25-year-olds is lacking someone to talk to about their issues. About half of those surveyed said they didn’t have anyone to talk to about their latest setback in life. Crucially, more than 70 per cent said they ‘didn’t have anyone to talk to about their problems while growing up’. These are troubling statistics, given how important families are in raising confident and self-assured children. And they are further illustrated by the staggering increase in demand for counselling at universities.

    As if adolescence wasn’t hard enough, young adults are also forced to become more self-reliant, with tuition fees, the housing ladder and the fierce job market ahead of us. Life moves faster than it did for our parents and, thanks to social media, everyone is watching our every move. These issues are not in themselves the cause of young people’s angst. Rather, they are part of a longer trend.

    As society becomes more individualistic and less communitarian, the onus of finding purpose in one’s life has ruthlessly shifted to the individual. This feeling of isolation and the pressure to ‘find yourself’ leads to young adults feeling they have no stake in society. The extreme consequence of this is young adults joining ISIS, finding a sense of purpose that they lack in the country in which they were born. For many youngsters, it leads to despondency and aimlessness. ‘I have no idea what I’m doing,’ a friend tells me, laughing nervously.

    No wonder if, feeling overwhelmed, we opt for Facebook instead. It’s a way of switching off. And that is part of the issue. For where social media and smartphones do have a role in this phenomenon is in the incessant comparison young people draw between themselves and others. Not only are they trying to find themselves, they’re also constantly watching everyone else’s lives unfold.

    That being said, social media is not the fundamental cause of our misery. The alcoholic isn’t fundamentally depressed because of the alcohol. Rather, the addict is escaping from something deeper. Similarly, English kids, who are more materialistic, concerned about their appearance, heavier drinkers and, perhaps, entering a more competitive society with weaker families and communal links than their international counterparts, are dealing with something deeper: deciding who they are.

    For while many things worry us throughout our lives — from getting bullied in the playground to where we will retire — the emotional security of feeling we belong somewhere, having a place called home, will always trump the rest.