Growing up has never been easy. No past generation of adolescents, however, has struggled with mental health quite like today’s teens, and this is something I see on a daily basis. Building a world for the next generation is difficult when you wonder whether the next generation will be able to enjoy it, and it’s something I think about regularly as an entrepreneur.
The statistics are stark. Depression diagnoses among adolescents, defined as individuals ages 12 through 17, grew 63 percent between 2013 and 2016, according to a Blue Cross Blue Shield Association study. Even more alarmingly, teen suicide rates are soaring. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicides among black 10- to 17 year-olds increased by 77 percent between 2006 and 2016, with white suicides among that age group growing by a similar 70 percent.
When health researchers first noticed the trend, they turned to the usual culprits. Economic inequality proved a popular explanation, but America’s wealth gap has been growing for decades, while teen mental health issues were on the downslide until recently. Other reports hinted at political rancor as a potential cause. International medical journals, however, show increases in teen suicides not just in the U.S., but also in other countrieslike the U.K. and Russia.
Then, in November 2017, Clinical Psychological Science published a groundbreaking study that pointed to excessive screen time. The study of 5,000 North American teens found a strong correlation between the proliferation of smartphones and teenage mental illness. Suicide rates among teen girls, for example, grew 65 percent between 2009 and 2015 — the same period during which smartphones hit market saturation.
When the smartphone-suicide link surfaced, researchers reacted with a mix of shock and resignation that the problem couldn’t be easily solved. At least two entrepreneurs, Jared Allgood and Jayson Ahlstrom, both dads of teenagers themselves, saw in the data what they had long suspected and were already working on a solution for.
Fighting Screens with Screens
Back in 2014, before most marketers saw the shift, Mappen CEO and co-founder Jared Allgood noticed teens were switching from Facebook to Instagram. Through interviews, he discovered that, while teens liked Instagram’s visual media, they couldn’t use it to contact friends. Allgood’s prior company, Jott, sought to help teens going to school without internet connectivity stay in touch.
But as Apple’s iMessage overtook Jott, Allgood’s vision evolved: Rather than merely help teens communicate over text, Allgood wanted to help them forge real-world friendships. He worried that, in contrast to past generations for which after-school socialization was the norm, just 22 percent of teens today spend time with friends after school. Allgood suspected the remaining teens were struggling with social isolation, a habit as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, so he started Mappen with the goal of getting teens to swap screen time for social time.
“We realized the antidote wasn’t to tell teens to stop using social media. It’s like saying ‘Eat your vegetables’ — it just doesn’t work,” Allgood says. “What does work is encouraging them to do something they enjoy, like spending time with their friends.”
Mappen encourages teens to spend time with friends by showing them on a map where their friends are and what they’re doing via emoji status updates. “You can see when someone is a block away or at one of your favorite places,” Allgood explains. “Then, when you’re going somewhere, you can share that and let people connect with you.”
Allgood emphasizes that Mappen’s goal is to reduce teens’ time online, not to eliminate it entirely. That objective aligns with the work of Jean Twenge, the San Diego State University professor of psychology who led the Clinical Psychological Science study. According to Twenge’s research, teens who spend less than two hours per day online do not seem to faceheightened mental health challenges. Teens who spend five or more hours per day online, though, are 71 percent more likely to present risk factors for suicide, such as depression and thinking about suicide.
Allgood and Twenge also agree that how teens spend time online is as important as how long they’re online each day. “Some types of screen time are good,” Allgood points out. “There’s nothing wrong with getting online to study for a test. The problem is when it’s Friday night, you’re alone, and you find yourself doing the infinite scroll.”
Why do teens seem particularly prone to dysfunctional social media use? Allgood lays blame with a neurotransmitter that plays a critical role in the brain’s reward system: dopamine. According to research published in the medical journal CNS Spectrums, dopaminergic reward systems are particularly active during adolescence. When a teen recognizes a face or receives a “like” on social media, his or her brain floods with dopamine, similar to the brain’s reaction to some psychoactive drugs. The pleasure of that dopamine dump encourages the teen to seek the stimulus again and again.
The problem, however, is that excessive social media use decouples dopamine from the “love hormone” released during extended social interactions: serotonin. A study in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews found that social interaction and serotonin release reinforce one another. When teens use social media in lieu of real-world interaction, they receive the dopamine hit but not the serotonin boost, causing them to feel good in the moment without experiencing serotonin’s effects of well-being and belonging. They then turn back to social media to assuage feelings of isolation and unhappiness, creating a feedback loop.
“We can’t help it. We’ve evolved this way,” Allgood says. “We need to be face to face with other people to experience the happiness and well-being that comes from real friendships.”
Breaking the Feedback Loop
Allgood acknowledges that social interaction is just one part of teens’ mental health needs. Just as important are adequate sleep and regular exercise. Johns Hopkins pediatricians recommend teens get between 9 and 9.5 hours of sleep per night — more than any other age group. Teens also need more exercise than individuals of other ages. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests teens get 60 minutesof physical activity per day, while HHS prescribes a minimum of 150 minutes per week for adults.
Fortunately, other entrepreneurs are coming up with tech solutions to help digital natives meet those guidelines. Sleep Genius, founded by neuroscientist and NASA researcher Seth Horowitz, helps users find and stick to their ideal bedtime, wakes them gently with a progressive alarm function, and includes a relaxation program to calm them before bed. Sleep-deprived teens will appreciate its Power Nap feature, which provides just the right amount of rest to recharge users without making them groggy.
To get sedentary teens moving, two University of Vermont professors are currently testing an app called “Camp Conquer.” The project is the first teen-specific exercise tool that uses gamification to encourage physical activity. Camp Conquer connects with a user’s Fitbit to track activity and provide in-game rewards. Every step a user takes improves his or her strength, speed, and accuracy in the game, a water balloon challenge with capture-the-flag-like play.
What impact apps like Camp Conquer and Mappen will have on youth depression and suicide rates remains to be seen. At present, however, the medical world doesn’t have a better answer than technologies that help teens spend more time with friends or get more sleep. But maybe that’s part of growing up: Learning that life is full of tough problems and short on easy answers.