Many teenagers feel that there is more and division and discrimination in the world, and the stress may make them act out more, new research suggests.
Since 2016, the US has only become further politically polarized, and American teenagers don’t have to be old enough to vote to be affected by the climate.
Meanwhile, stress, depression, anxiety and a general swath of mental health concerns are on the rise among teens across the country.
New University of Southern California research suggests that to explain rising rates of ADHD, smoking, drinking and more, we need to look beyond genetics and home life to the political arena.
Between 2016 and 2017, teenagers were very much aware of the intensifying political climate and stress over discrimination raised their risks of substance abuse and ADHD, a study found
Teenagers are sensitive to the world around them – and that doesn’t just apply to their social circles or what’s trending on Twitter.
Developmentally speaking, high school students (typically between ages 15 and 17) are at once extremely self-absorbed and beginning to understand and engage with the broader world.
A sense of right or wrong and ideological loyalties start to take more concrete shape during these years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And as these young people begin to care more about the world around them, the world’s conditions begin to matter and affect them more, too.
In the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, no one had to pay very close attention to notice rising political tensions.
Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) have been studying a group of group of more than 2,500 teenagers in Los Angeles, giving them a survey with questions to monitor their mental health and substance use patterns every six months.
Nearly 20 percent of the students were Hispanic, 17 percent were multiracial, six percent were Black and seven percent were white.
‘Prior to our spring 2016 survey, we noticed highly public instances of police violence – especially toward minorities – backlash toward same-sex marriage and a surge in hate crimes against American Muslims,’ says Dr Adam Leventhal, lead study author.
‘We wanted to see whether the teens in our study were concerned that discrimination in our society appeared to be increasing.’
They also wanted to see if concern over discrimination would translate into increases in behavioral patterns and disorders typical of stressed out teenagers.
Dr Leventhal and his team at USC surveyed the teenagers about six different behavioral health measures: how much they were drinking, smoking cigarettes, using marijuana and using other substances, as well as questions to screen them for both depression and symptoms of attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
They asked the students these same questions again a year later, after President Donald Trump had been elected.
‘We didn’t know what was going to happen, but the societal climate intensified, particularly in the first few months of the presidential campaign,’ says Dr Leventhal.
‘During the campaign, there was talk of policies that were perceived by many as discriminatory, like building a wall at the border between Mexico and the US, and we have a lot of Hispanic study participants.’
These developments seemed to concern all of the students, and they all showed signs of their stress in their behaviors.
‘We hypothesized that the teens from racially ethnic or disadvantaged socioeconomic groups might have more at stake in terms of whether society is becoming more discriminatory, at least from their perspective’ says Dr Leventhal.
‘But we found that, for many of our outcomes, the association between stress and an increased risk of all sorts of behavioral health outcomes held true across lower and higher socioeconomic groups.’
The students’ reactions to these societal stressors did vary with their race and socioeconomic statuses.
As black and Hispanic students reported a growing concerns about discrimination, they tended to smoke – both marijuana and cigarettes – more, drink more and report more symptoms of both depression and ADHD.
White students were marginally more likely to develop these problematic behaviors as the political climate changed, except for smoking, which was no more common among these students at the end of the study than it had been at the beginning.
If a student was in the 13 percent of the participants with parents who had not even received a high school diploma (an indicator of low income), however, all of these behavioral impacts were ‘amplified,’ regardless of race.
‘Previous studies of polarizing social events have later linked these to behavioral health … but nothing in recent memory would rial this,’ says Dr Leventhal.
‘I think, given some of the events more recently have to do with social policies that are national, one could envision that those might have more wide-spanning implications for a very large cross-section of teenagers in the overall population.’
We have long a myriad of factors affect teenagers’ mental and behavioral health, and ‘what this study shows is that the larger societal context at a national – and potentially an international – level might be affecting them too,’ Dr Leventhal says.
‘Parents, teachers, pediatricians, and anyone who interacts with teens need to know that opening up a dialogue with them to discuss whether they’re feeling stressed about these issues is probably something that should be taken more seriously.’
And he urges policymakers to take note of what’s going on with these younger generations, too.
‘When considering enforcing a social policy that may be used in ways that could be viewed as discriminatory, there may be wide implications for the mental health of teens on a wide spread basis,’ he says
‘That should enter into discussions so policymakers can consider the net productivity effects on our nation’s youth, including those who are not members of sociodemograpic groups that are historically discriminated against.’