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Smartphones and ‘rise of individualism’ driving rise in teenage distress

Findings show today’s 13-year olds are more at risk of depressive symptoms

Many young teens forced to gravitate online for schooling and socialising during Covid spent too much time there

Young teens are living the results of a “perfect storm” of too much time online, lingering impact of Covid pandemic and the “rise of individualism”, a leading child and adolescent psychotherapist has warned.

Dr Colman Noctor, a psychotherapist at St Patrick’s University Hospital, Dublin was commenting on findings that today’s 13-year olds were almost twice as “at risk” of depressive symptoms, with girls especially at risk, than their counterparts a decade earlier.

Drawing on data from the longitudinal Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study the report examines findings about 13-year olds born in 2008 with findings from a cohort born in 1998.

Dr Noctor said he and colleagues were “overwhelmed” with referrals for support and treatment for children experiencing mental and emotional distress. An upward trajectory had begun around 2010 – around the same time as smartphone use spiralled – and accelerated since the pandemic, he said.


Today’s 13 and 14-year olds in particular, he said, had gone into the pandemic lockdowns as children who had socialised on organised play-dates, but emerged at an age where they should be organising their own social lives but without the skills to do so.

Growing Up in Ireland: Young teenagers less likely to smoke or drink than counterparts a decade ago ]

In addition, having been forced to gravitate online for schooling and socialising many still spent too much time there, he said, exposed not only to “much more grown-up content like Palestine and the climate crisis” than they would have been a decade earlier, but also to “enormous levels of self-scrutiny” and “comparison”.

“I don’t believe they are getting enough social and emotional experience, that comes with just hanging out with their peers, to cope with a lot of the experiences and content they are consuming online.”

He pointed to the “rise of individualism” happening in parallel. Referring to the “constant selfies” as a symptom he described a “loss of the tribe” in this age-cohort’s lives.

This was not confined to young teens, he continued – “college campuses are dead and we have 40- and 50-year olds talking about how lonely they are” but young teens were unusually vulnerable to being unskilled in how to address it.

“I would like to be able to say there is a solution but in many cases the parents themselves are lonely and depressed while trying to be the voice of optimism for their children. What we must do is provide spaces and support for young teenagers to socialise and build those skills.”