04.29.2022 – Give ’em That Old Time Religion

Youth Group, First Presbyterian Church, Santa Cruz, California – circa 1980

The headline caught my attention.  A recent Atlantic magazine article appeared under words, “Why American Teens are so Sad.”  The piece is worth reading if you can get past the paywall.  But whether you read it or not, let me highlight a bit of how the writer explains teen sadness, and then add an observation of my own.

Journalist Derek Thompson begins with this disturbing statement:

The United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental-health crisis. From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent, according to a new CDC study. This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.

Thompson goes on to say that this crisis is neither too old nor too new.  He dispels three fallacies we might use to dismiss our concern.

The first fallacy is that we can chalk this all up to teens behaving badly.
The second fallacy is that teens have always been moody, and sadness looks like it is rising only because people are more willing to talk about it.
The third fallacy is that today’s mental-health crisis was principally caused by the pandemic and an overreaction to Covid.

Thompson comments on and adds data to support his fallacies points.  We might summarize by saying things have gotten worse in the past decade or so, and we can’t blame all of it on Covid.

Using the CDC study and insights from others, Thompson offers what he sees as four primary causes of the teenage sadness crisis:

Social-media use
Thompson is quick to point out that not everyone who uses social media will end up depressed:
Social media isn’t like rat poison, which is toxic to almost everyone. It’s more like alcohol: a mildly addictive substance that can enhance social situations but can also lead to dependency and depression among a minority of users.

Sociality is down
Thompson writes: Compared with their counterparts in the 2000s, today’s teens are less likely to go out with their friends, get their driver’s license, or play youth sports.

This is important to say clearly: Aloneness isn’t the same as loneliness, and loneliness isn’t the same as depression. But more aloneness (including from heavy smartphone use) and more loneliness (including from school closures) might have combined to push up sadness among teenagers who need sociality to protect them from the pressures of a stressful world.

The world is stressful—and there is more news about the world’s stressors
Or, at least, teenagers’ perception of the world seems to be causing them more stress…In the last decade teenagers have become increasingly stressed by concerns about gun violence, climate change, and the political environment. Increased stress among young people is linked to increasing levels of sadness. Girls, more than boys, are socialized to internalize distress, meaning that they tend to collapse in on themselves by becoming depressed or anxious.

Modern parenting strategies
Our best intentions have dangerous consequences:
In the past 40 years, American parents—especially those with a college degree—have nearly doubled the amount of time they spend coaching, chauffeuring, tutoring, and otherwise helping their teenage children.  …Anxious parents, in seeking to insulate their children from risk and danger, are unintentionally transferring their anxiety to their kids.

In summary, then, our teens are sadder in ways unlike and to a greater degree than those of previous generations.  The sadness trend is growing and cannot be dismissed as just more collateral damage from the pandemic.

The Atlantic writer has identified four causes. He mentions other possible contributing causes in the article, but says these are the key causes:

  1. Social Media Use
  2. Decline in Sociality
  3. Life in a Stressful World
  4. Flawed Parenting Strategies

My summary of the article does not do it justice. But I am persuaded. It makes sense to me.  I would suggest one more possible cause to the current crisis of teenage sadness, however.

  1. The Decline of Religion

While I am partial to Christianity, I wonder if the decline of religion – religion, not spirituality – has something to do with teen sadness. Surveys and studies tell us that fewer and fewer adolescents (and their parents!) claim a religious identity.  We don’t see ourselves as Jews or Muslims, Christians or Hindus.  We are left to figure out our spiritual lives on our own, and we don’t do a very good job of it.

Religion, a nasty word in secular society, means that which rebinds or reconnects.  It has to do with worship and ritual. It defines morality and ethics. It provides a systematic way to think about God and the truths that transcend science.  The secularists are wrong. Religion is a good thing.  And, yes, I happen to think Christianity does a better job than all the others of the things religions are supposed to do.

Why are our teenagers so sad? Maybe because they have nothing to bind them to the important things, nothing to connect them to the best answers about life in a lonely and hard world.  Lacking religion, our kids are adrift on a cruel sea.

The best thing about the Christian religion is how its message binds us by grace and connects us to love.

Sad kids need to get some religion.  I’d recommend Christianity.