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

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.


  • Zarniwoop

    Heavier drinkers??? Even though drinking rates amongst the under 30’s are declining. Todays teens and twenty somethings drink a whole lot less than their forebears.

    I think you should look to more to a controlling and control freak society which in the last ten years has become more puritanical.

    There is less freedom now than there ever has been. Even compared to the 1950’s teenagers are more monitored and bound by social parental and governmental rules, bans, and control freakery than ever before.

  • T.S.7.1

    Let s not forget how many jobs and overtime, or multiple responsibilities and various arrangements an urban parent needs to achieve, in order to “survive” simply in Zone 3 and further off the greater London area, as coming closer to the center would cost them an arm and a leg..
    Think how many hours these kids are spending alone, how fast they need to grow, how many expensive gadgets and devices these young people need to own, in order to express their individualistic homogenization to their immediate social circle.
    How popular, how smart, how good-looking, how cool and well dressed they need to be, in order to succeed and fit in a culture that celebrates thick, uneducated roll models, all in the name of fun and giggles, while the government cut budgets on education, culture, social art etc..
    It s a jungle out there and in the name of progress I fear more devastation will be documented ..but “it s all for the greater good, London is the epicenter of the word” and as you feel proud to be British, you d be poor to make any decisions to survive.

  • sir_graphus

    We really don’t seem to like the younger generation, sometimes; tuition fees, huge mortgages, compulsory ID checks in bars for the youngsters, car insurance so expensive they can’t drive. I notice, also, this summer, that the younger generation of French girls do not sunbathe topless. The joy is being stripped out of their worlds.

  • P Rogers

    This is a very important article; I myself have noticed all of the above and I know scores of others who’ve expressed these feelings to me. Ours is a very different world to our parents, with the explosion of technology and the resulting globalisation.

    The recent ease of personal travel, a blessing in many ways, means relationships and communities are more dispersed and fractured, with people living and working further afield from those common to them.

    We’ve had relentless fear-based advertising, financial crisis, mass immigration, an under current of social Marxism and atmospheric white guilt. Guilt in general. Guilt for destroying the environment, guilt for living in the first world, guilt for our empire-building forefathers, guilt for so called ‘privilege’, guilt for not reaching one’s ‘full potential’.

    We’ve thrown off Christianity, without a real ethical discourse and community building replacement. Politically switched off while the state expanded. The family has been undermined and most of my friends come from divorced parents, as do I.

    Feminism has told young women that being a homemaker and spending time with your children is as a result of male oppression, when really it was a natural social contract to enable survival, while telling men that they are unnecessary rapists in waiting.

    If we could stop the 21st century conveyor belt for a moment and really take a reflective look at our societies future, with a view to long term happiness we might have some hope

    • Gregory Mason

      As one of those unhappy young folks I have to agree with pretty much everything you’ve said.

  • Mark Frost

    “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.”
    Totally wrong. You join ISIS if you’re sick in the head and morally redundant. There are plenty of people who have experienced worthlessness, yet refrained from joining a death cult. Apart from that, nice article.

    • Clare

      Or both. One environmental or sociological setup may result in differing outcomes. Extremism can for sure come from extreme social or cultural isolation. Personal morality especially in the young is fluid and malleable. I’d like this article to have a bit more evidential substance though.

  • Gweedo

    Kill the old.