Teens and young adults often put a stark spotlight on their struggles by writing candidly about them on social media.
Though plenty of critics respond to this behavior with a dramatic eye roll and accusations of narcissism, there's something much more complex happening beyond a dashed-off post about feeling sad, disappointed, or anxious.
New research suggests that more teens and young adults are dealing with emotional and mental health distress than ever before. They're also being asked by mental health advocates and celebrities to open up about their pain. The hope is that such honesty will reduce stigma and connect vulnerable young people with support and professional help.
You can see that dynamic in action on Tumblr, where more than half of users are between the ages of 13 and 34. Between 2013 and 2016, overall conversations about mental health, including re-blogs and original posts, increased by 248 percent, according to the company.
Two years ago, the company started an annual mental health awareness campaign called Post It Forward, which encourages people to talk openly about their struggles and learn about "caring communities right on the other side of their screen." When the newest iteration of that initiative launched Monday, it quickly became the site's number one trend.
"So much of the mission of the project is to share your story because it will help someone else," said Leah Linder, senior communications manager for Tumblr.
An invitation like that also hints at an important cultural shift. Not only are more of today's youth experiencing mental health issues, they're being asked to publicly talk about their feelings in ways that older millennials and Gen Xers could have never imagined.
That behavior isn't without risks, including unexpected ones. How much young people share online became a major concern this week when news broke that marketers in Australia and New Zealand were studying how to target Facebook users as young as 14 based on posts about their raw, negative emotions.
But much of the criticism about confessional posts is rooted in a traditional belief that people aren't supposed to talk about their messy, tender emotions, much less mental illness. Those critics, however, might try listening to mental health advocates who are frankly alarmed by the trends they're seeing.
In December, a study in the journal Pediatrics found that more teens and young adults are experiencing depression. The rate increased for 12- to 20-year-olds by 37 percent between 2005 and 2014, a finding that the researchers couldn't really explain.
Neither socioeconomic or household factors previously associated with mental health issues in adolescents, like income and single-parent families, could account for the spike, nor did changes in the rate of substance abuse. The study authors speculated that girls, who experienced higher rates of depression, may have been exposed to more risk factors, including cyber-bullying and obsessive cell phone use.
The American Freshman Survey, which has collected data on incoming college students for more than 50 years, just published some worrisome results from its fall 2016 questionnaire. Twelve percent of the 137,000 respondents — a record high — said they frequently felt depressed in the past year. In the first-ever question about anxiety, a third of students said they'd often felt anxious over the same time frame.
Anne L. Glowinski, associate director of the William Greenleaf Elliot Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine, sees evidence of these trends in the patients she treats. Glowinski, who wrote an op-ed in response to the Pediatrics study, says the growing awareness of mental health issues has brought important attention to the increasing challenges that young people face, but that hasn't led to increased screening or treatment.
Glowinski's patients often feel perfectly comfortable talking about their experiences online — which frequently panics their parents — or they feel so ashamed of their diagnosis that they stop treatment.
"Tackling stigma is a huge priority," she says. "The way you tackle stigma is that you use narrative and self-disclosure from people who are reasonable role models."
Hence the proliferation of campaigns like #PostItForward, which launched in 2015 with a video of Pete Wentz. The Be Vocal campaign, which counts the singer Demi Lovato as a key spokesperson and partner, encourages people to find ways to talk about their mental health. Half of Us, a decade-old partnership between The Jed Foundation and mtvU, has enlisted celebrities like Brittany Snow, Macklemore, and Mary J. Blige to share their own stories. All of these initiatives invite people to do the same online, so it shouldn't be that surprising when we see teens publish a post about their feelings.
Beyond stigma-busting campaigns, there are bigger cultural forces at work shaping how young people communicate about mental health.
"Whatever you’re feeling doesn’t need to be as hidden."
Jean Twenge, a psychologist and author of the forthcoming book iGen: The 10 Trends Shaping Today's Young People — and the Nation, says the shifting norms around mental illness combined with the self-expression offered by social media has changed how teens view and talk about their emotional struggles.
As Americans have moved from prizing social rules to individualism in recent decades, she says, honest self-expression has become normal. Social media is a natural avenue for that because it connects you with friends and family — and many people under the age of 18 feel fine sharing their lives on the internet as they do in real life.
"Whatever you’re feeling doesn’t need to be as hidden," says Twenge. "If there’s a higher percentage of people [experiencing mental health issues], that’s probably going to change norms of how that’s expressed, and make it more common and accepted to write about your depression or anxiety."
Twenge isn't convinced that social media is the best place to seek support, but thinks young people are probably looking for the same thing as they would in real life: a chance to express their feelings and know that people love them. The risk, of course, is that they might make themselves vulnerable and feel hurt that no one responded, or worse yet, find that someone exploited their emotions or bullied them as a result.
Whether social media helps teens find support, reduces the stigma of mental health issues, or even leads to bullying or rejection, the more urgent question is why more of them are in emotional pain. Social media itself can't stop that trend, but research, awareness, and treatment have the power to make a life-saving difference.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.