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Description: Have a quick look at just the title of the article linked below. It begins with what is likely a factual statement, that American teens are really miserable and then asks a possibly researchable question: “why?” The focus on teens suggests a developmental question as it focuses on teens and not on children, young adults or adults. So why is it that teens are so miserable. The title specifies American teens which could suggest a context issue if the statement only applies to American teens and not to Canadian teens or teens elsewhere or perhaps it is simply stated that way because the author is writing for the New York Times, an American newspaper. Not clearly stated in the title but implied is what is suggested if we add a word to the title so that it reads American teens today are miserable which indicates that this level of misery was not the case, at least to the current extent, in previous decades or previous generations of teens. I realize that all this might seem rather picky, fussy, and even silly but hang in for another moment. Let’s start by generalizing a bit based on available data (that Canadian teens seem to be in the same boat as American teens), so, Western teens and let’s assume the addition of today (or these days) as well. What we have then is a developmental question and it is a particularly difficult sort of developmental question. Generally there are many developmental changes or accomplishments that are in the direction of universal (e.g., infants crawl before they walk, babble before they speak words and seem to become able to engage in simple logic around the time they enter school). Development, however, does not proceed in isolation. There are family and cultural contexts that can influence the nature and the pace of development. Infants who are carried in slings or bound to backboards by their parents while they work may crawl and walk at slightly different ages, for example. There is usually assumed to be some stability to variables of family or cultural developmental context. Broad developmental research involves consideration of the possible sociohistorical contexts of development. Consideration of sociohistorical developmental context factors is one of the most challenging sorts of developmental research. They involve asking questions about why a particular stage or age of development at one historical point in time (e.g., today or these days) is, or seems to be, different than it was at previous points in history. These sorts of questions typically focus upon things that seem to be generationally in evidence or in other words, they are not just looking at individual variations in developmental advancement but rather at population level differences as in teens these days are having more different developmental experiences than did teens in previous generations. The challenge is to figure out what the active variables are in such research. That is, what thing or things are leading to the different experiences that teens these days seem to be having. Do you think you could zero in on the issues, factors or experiences that are contributing to these generational differences, and could you design a research study or a line of research studies that would identify the active ingredients causing the observed differences AND suggest things that we could do to make things better for “teens these days”? With this huge introduction in mind as you think about how you would manage this research challenge, read through the article linked below (which does not propose any new research, though it notes a couple of studies) to see if it helps you sort out what sociohistorical factors we should look at in order to begin to address the question in the article’s title (and how we might do so). Oh and if you are still feeling a bit short on possible sociohistorical factors at the end of the article have a look at the over 1400 (and growing) of comments on the article posted by other readers as they suggest, or rather more typically insist on, one or two or more.

Source: American Teens Are Really Miserable. Why? Ross Douthat, Opinion, The New York Times.

Date: February 18, 2023

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Article Link:

So, do you have the sociohistorical factors associated with the observed recent leap in teen misery sorted out and a research strategy in mind for nailing down and assessing your causal and possible intervention hypotheses laid out? It is rather complicated doing this sort of thinking and research planning isn’t it. Doing so in ways that will inform us as to the causal factors involved rather than simply arguing about possible correlational (co-occurring) factors is a big part of this challenge as is trying to avoid victim (or victims’ parents) blaming. Also, if you looked though some of the posted comments on the article you can see that most commentors feel they clearly see the causes of this misery and do not feel that further search is needed as blame is easily laid. BUT more research and careful thought and theorizing ARE needed!! If you would like to consider another area of sociohistorical enquiry type the word covid into this blog’s search box and you will find quite a few posts looking at sociohistorical research efforts. In addition, if you are interested in examples of how psychology researchers have approached this teen misery question you can have a look at the two other blogs I posted this week (below or here and here).

In closing I should add that while I have left things wide open for you to construct your own hypotheses and sociohistorical developmental theoretic possibilities I DO have a few thoughts on this subject (full disclosure). I think we need to look very closely at the roles that social media have been playing in the development of teens in Western culture over the past 10 to 15 years. However, we should not stop there. When the author of the linked article suggests we consider the role of the rise in ideological liberalism and the drop in engagement with religion he could have been seen to be simply asking for the tsunami of reader comments that are appended to the article. But, he is also pointing to the role of family, social and community connections in development (we do not grow up well alone, even Tarzan and Mowgli had family and communities of sorts). So, I think we need to look at the sociohistorical contexts of BOTH teen development and the emergence and market dominance of social media as they are BOTH parts of what is going on ‘these days’!

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is meant by the statement that (American) teens are miserable (these days)?
  2. Why is it difficult to think (theorize) about and design effective research into the sociohistorical contexts of development?
  3. In a paragraph, explain what you see as the most important (causal) factors leading to the observed jump in teen misery (and what do you think we should be doing about it)?

References (Read Further):

CDC (2023) Youth Risk Behavior Survey: Data Summary and Trends Report. Link

Haidt, Jon (2023) The new CDC report shows that Covid added little to teen mental health trends. Link

Haidt, Jonathan (2021) The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls, The Atlantic. Link

Thompson, Derek (2023) America’s Teenaged Girls are Not OK. The Atlantic. Link

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2019). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. Penguin.

Appel, M., Marker, C., & Gnambs, T. (2020). Are social media ruining our lives? A review of meta-analytic evidence. Review of General Psychology, 24(1), 60-74. Link

Coyne, S. M., Rogers, A. A., Zurcher, J. D., Stockdale, L., & Booth, M. (2020). Does time spent using social media impact mental health?: An eight year longitudinal study. Computers in Human Behavior, 104, 106160. Link

Braghieri, L., Levy, R. E., & Makarin, A. (2022). Social media and mental health. American Economic Review, 112(11), 3660-3693. Link

Twenge, J. M., Haidt, J., Lozano, J., & Cummins, K. M. (2022). Specification curve analysis shows that social media use is linked to poor mental health, especially among girls. Acta psychologica, 224, 103512. Link