Unplugging the Matrix: Tackling the Silent Mental Health Crisis Among Young Women in the Digital Age


There is a silent mental health crisis gripping young women in this digital age. Alarming statistics expose a dramatic surge in psychological distress, notably among girls, correlated with the rise of smartphones and social media. Despite technological advancements, mental health appears to be on the decline. Research pinpoints a crucial inflection point prompting a crucial question: Are smartphones and social media the culprits behind this unprecedented mental health epidemic?

Tackling the Silent Mental Health Crisis Among Young Women in the Digital Age

How many times have you had your phone out today? What would your usage stats tell you? How much has your use changed in the last decade? Do you ever find yourself “doom scrolling”, especially in Instagram reels which seems to be “the matrix” of our times.

I know these will be statistics for you because the fact that you even get to reading this shows you use social media and devices.

The double-edged sword of what we carry in our hands and pockets these days is something we need to talk about, and now, especially for our young people. But do you need to have that conversation with yourself as well?

For the most part in modern society, generations have been defined not by just the passage of time, but by events and changes in the world. 

Let’s have a look at the last 100 years.

You most probably have never heard much from the Silent Generation (Born 1928-1945). That’s because they never said much in the first place, and most are now dead. They were defined by the events of the Great Depression and World War II. They experienced significant economic hardship and global conflict. Their experiences fostered a sense of resilience, duty, and conformity. The rise of radio and black-and-white television, widespread adoption of telephones, air travel and cars changed the world.

Ok Boomer…the Baby Boomers (Born 1946-1964) experienced Post-World War II optimism that led to an era of prosperity and growth. The Civil Rights Movement, contraception, and cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Colour television, the space age, international travel for everyone, and huge property capital gains, all define the boomers.

I’m a Generation X (Born 1965-1980). My group saw the rise of both parents working, environmentalism, the end of the Cold War, and continued wealth filled by unsustainable economic growth. Ubiquitous TV, video games, personal computers, and the early stages of the internet were the technologies that defined me and the rest of the Gen X.

Millennials (Born 1981-1996) were defined by 9/11, the Great Recession, and increased globalisation, and extremely rapid technological change in all aspects of their lives. 

The internet, mobile phones, and social media changed access to information forever. They are also called Generation Y and known for their adaptability, tech-savviness, and a more liberal approach to changing careers and outlook several times.

Generation Z (Born 1997-2012) are growing up with climate change, social and sexual diversity, and inclusivity. They have never known a world without smartphones, social media, and instant access to information. The rise of AI, advanced gaming technologies, and ubiquitous social media platforms continues to shape their lives.

Generation Alpha. (2010 -) are digitally saturated from birth: Alphas are still in the midst of whatever is going on now – COVID, AI, AGI, and who knows the next decade. I predict ubiquitous humanoid assistant robots in every home by 2030. Of course, every futurist prediction is usually wrong…

The thing is, you’d expect our lives to be much better as all these technologies advanced right?

Well, in most respects it is. We live longer. We have more access to friends and family. We have bigger, safer, cheaper and more reliable cars. Up until recently, everything got cheaper in real terms from transport to communications to food to electricity.

This is what you’d expect from a species that has mastered its own environment and cooperates to an extent that our magical technologies are real. Then how come the two things we cherish most about ourselves our physical and mental health have gotten worse?

I’m focusing on mental health here.

I’ve noticed that in New Zealand nearly one in four (23.5%) young people aged 15–24 years experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in 2021/22. This was up from 5.1% in 2011/12. These are robust results from the New Zealand Health survey using a robust measure (The k10).

New Zealand is similar to the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK. Girls suffer more than twice the problems as boys.

Astonishing, and in my view, below public consciousness and certainly below policy debate is the problem our young women are experiencing. Have a look at the data below for the US. 

Major depressive episode in the last 12 months, by age group and sex, 2005-2017
Major depressive episode in the last 12 months, by age group and sex, 2005-2017, NS-DUH [Note that 2011 is the last year of normal rates. Beginning around 2012, rates begin to rise.]

I’d like to tell you about the work of Dr Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University. 

Twenge focuses on generational shifts and their profound psychological implications, with her concept of ‘iGen’ which is really Gen Z onwards. She has several good books – ‘IGen’ and ‘Generations’, but for me the real gold is her publicly available open Google doc called “Adolescent mood disorders since 2010: A collaborative review”. This is a logical data dump of more than 250 pages exploring how mental health is changing over time for different age groups in all English-speaking countries and more widely around the world. She then dumps data in looking at when and how these changes might have occurred.

For me, this is an absolute treasure trove of information.

Here’s what I noticed:

  1. Youth mental health issues are way up. Girls have a higher prevalence of everything from low mood to anxiety, to loneliness, to depression, to major depressive disorder, to suicidality, to self-harm presenting in emergency rooms, except actual suicide, than boys.
  2. Both boys and girls have been increasing steadily since 2011/2012. The exact same inflection point is the same in every English-speaking country.
  3. The only plausible explanation looking across data on all plausible explanations from more diagnosis and awareness, to poorer parenting, and so on is the rise of smartphones and social media.

Oh the irony…

The digital age, while connecting the world has left us lonely, more depressed, more anxious, and in the middle of a mental health epidemic. Are the unreal comparisons from social media the thief of joy? What exactly is the mechanism which robs us? Is it the hacking of the dopamine system and the subsequent downregulation of the system that robs us of the ability to feel pleasure, joy and motivation?  We are still learning about all of this.

It’s my view that this epidemic is almost silent for our young women. Look, we – the actual adults in society need to take this seriously and get on it. The double-edged sword of holding the world in your hand. A tremendous, almost magical tool. But at the same time a terrible and vicious master.

What we still need to learn is how we are going to simultaneously embrace what these technologies can do, and help our children and young people live their best lives.

What I know is that we need to talk about this and start doing something real.

I’d like to hear what you think we can do? Or what you have done and had success with?

I’m the opposite of a paragon of virtue here too. I struggle with doom scrolling, nomophobia (look that one up), and love how I can satisfy my scientific curiosity wherever and whenever I want. I love that my X (formerly known as Twitter..) algorithm serves my near-addictive supply of breaking and controversial science. But I know it ruins other parts of my life.

I also know that we have the potential to buffer some of the negative effects by getting outside, especially in natural sunlight, being active, eating whole unprocessed food, sleeping well, connecting for real with others, and finding serious meaning and purpose in what you do.

I use these tools all the time, and hope you can too. They take away some of the negative effects of the devices. 

But what’s the long-term solution? What are we going to do to help your young people, especially our young women?

Tackling the Silent Mental Health Crisis Among Young Women in the Digital Age

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