The gravest public health threats to teenagers used to be binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy and smoking. These have now been replaced by drug addiction and a new public health concern: soaring rates of mental health disorders.

The decline in mental health among teenagers was intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic, spanning racial and ethnic groups, urban and rural areas and the socioeconomic divide. In the States, the surgeon general warned of a devastating mental health crisis among adolescents. Numerous hospital and doctor groups have called it a national emergency, citing rising levels of mental illness, a severe shortage of therapists and treatment options, and not enough research to explain the trend.

The crisis is often due to the rise of social media, but solid data on the issue is limited, the findings are often contradictory, and some adolescents appear to be more vulnerable than others to the effects of screen time. Federal research shows that teenagers as a group are also getting less sleep and exercise and spending less in-person time with friends at a period in life when it is typical to test boundaries and explore one’s identity. The combined result for some adolescents is a kind of cognitive implosion: anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors, self-harm and even suicide.

Over the past century, the age of puberty onset has dropped for girls, to 12 years old today from 14 years old in 1990; the age of onset for boys has followed a similar path. Experts say this shift probably now plays a role in the adolescent mental health crisis, although it is just one of many factors that researchers are still working to understand.

When puberty hits, the brain becomes hypersensitive to social and hierarchical information, even as media flood it with opportunities to explore one’s identity and gauge self-worth. The ability to maturely grapple with the resulting questions — Who am I? Who are my friends? Where do I fit in? — typically lags behind.

The falling age of puberty has created a widening gap between incoming stimulation and what the young brain can process: They’re being exposed to this avalanche at much earlier age.

Health experts note that, for all its weight, the adolescent crisis at least is unfolding in a more accepting environment. Mental health issues have removed much of the stigma they carried three decades ago, and parents and adolescents alike are more at ease when discussing the subject among themselves and seeking help.

There’s something different about this generation that makes them much more susceptible or vulnerable. A rise in loneliness is a key factor, experts said. Recent studies have shown that teenagers  worldwide increasingly report feeling lonely, even in a period when their internet use has exploded.

Young adults and parents, take note! By Manny Palomar, PhD (EV Mail January 9-15, 2023 issue)