Global study reveals mental well-being 'plummeting' among young people

Its findings could change how we interact with technology.
Eric James Beyer
Abstract colorful low poly human brain side viewpeepo/iStock

Writing in A Short History of Progress at the turn of the 21st century, Ronald Wright compared civilization to an experiment and a relatively new one at that. He also described what he referred to as “progress traps,” the results of a synthesis of human ingenuity and an inability to plan for the future it had created at the behest of that ingenuity. 

“A small village on good land beside a river is a good idea;” he wrote, “but when the village grows into a city and paves over the good land, it becomes a bad idea. While prevention might have been easy, a cure may be impossible: a city isn't easily moved.”

Wright is far from the only person to survey the social landscape and come away worried in this manner. Never mind the cliche of each generation’s elders lamenting how much worse the world has gotten in their lifetime, the question is still valid: How do we take stock of the millennia-spanning project of civilization? More importantly, how do we decide what to aim for to make it better?

The answers to those questions will vary depending on the aspect of society you look at. Environmentally, for example, we’ve got a pretty good idea of where we are and what steps need to be taken to avoid disaster for the planet and for our own species.

But if we reverse our lens and focus on the inner mental domains that govern how we interpret and interact with the world, we find a different case altogether. Despite its importance, we’ve only recently begun to look seriously at mental well-being on a large scale to see how we’re doing. 

Sapien Labs and the mental state of the world

Enter Sapien Labs, the Washington D.C.-based non-profit that studies how the technologies and environments of rapidly-evolving modernity changes the brain

The organization released its second annual Mental State of the World report today, the widest-reaching and most extensive study of its kind in existence. Nearly 225,000 internet-enabled participants from 34 countries across Latin America, Africa, continental Europe, and the Arab world contributed to the report by taking part in an assessment that measures mental well-being. 

The metric used in the survey is what the team at Sapien Labs calls the Mental Health Quotient (MHQ), a composite score of 47 different mental attributes aggregated into dimensions like Social Self, Mood and Outlook, and Mind-Body connection. Participants’ MHQs are plotted on a scale that ranges from “distressed” to “thriving,” with four categories between them. 

So, how did the world’s mental health stack up in 2021?

“[We’re] having a really rough time,” explained Dr. Tara Thiagarajan, founder and chief scientist of Sapien Labs in an interview with Interesting Engineering. “The overall picture that we’re seeing from a country perspective is that the more individualistic countries, the more performance-oriented countries, are doing worse. The second piece is that, globally, young people are seeing this very dramatic decline in mental well-being.”

The report's major findings are striking and more than a little alarming. For example, the countries that make up the “Core Anglosphere” — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia — had the lowest mental well-being scores of the six regions involved in the study, with 30 percent of respondents scoring in the “distressed” or “struggling” range on the MHQ scale.  

Graph showing the mental health scores of the six geographic regions involved in the study, with the Core Anglosphere ranking the lowest.
via Sapien Labs

Another compelling finding is that factors indicating economic prosperity such as GDP and GNI per capita were significantly negatively correlated with MHQ scores. In other words, the more economically well-off a country is, the less mentally well-off its inhabitants seem to be. Furthermore, the more “individualistic” a culture, the lower participants ranked in their MHQ scores. Speaking to the North American ethos, for example, she believes the idea of being entirely self-contained and self-reliant is strictly antithetical to both lived reality and to human needs. 

“With a country like the United States, the ideal is a very false narrative relative to the reality,” she says. “You have this idea that you can be anything, you can do anything. But when you look at it, it’s a highly unequal society. It’s not true that anybody can be anything. It creates a false narrative that [...] everything is just the individual, and if you haven’t done it, it’s on you. But the environment that you’re in plays a massive role.” 

"This is a complete shift in the pattern that we’ve seen globally."

Dr. Thiagarajan believes the study shows that having an environment centered on a model of economic prosperity at all costs is both mistaken and harmful to the people that make up that economy. The challenge, she says, is to go beyond the idea of having economic growth as an exclusive engine. 

“We’ve always thought of [this growth] as the north star, and as long as that keeps going, everything in the world will just get better and better,” she elaborates.” “I think there is a range where you need that growth, but also a point where growth can become harmful. The human body, for instance, grows rapidly for a period of time and then stops. That growth is important, but beyond a point would be harmful for the functioning of the human being overall. This is true in much of nature.” 

The second major finding the study uncovered is arguably far more disturbing — the fact that mental health among young people is “plummeting.” Looking at similar data from the 1990s and early 2000s shows that young people were always the most optimistic demographic out there, the group that was likely to feel the very best about life. 

“Now it’s the opposite, and in such a dramatic way,” says Dr. Thiagarajan. “This is a complete shift in the pattern that we’ve seen globally.”

Line graph showing the decline of mental health of young people across the globe.
via Sapien Labs

What could be causing this distinct drop in young people’s mental health? Dr. Thiagarajan believes we need to look at the common and consistent factors impacting all of these different countries if we’re to find an answer. 

Being a study of global complexity, however, honing in on those commonalities isn’t an easy task. Political instability, for example, is rampant in some places, but absent in others. Inequality has shot up in the developed world, but in some regions, like Latin America, it’s gone down. 

"People no longer feel they’re a part of the social fabric."

What Dr. Thiagarajan believes accounts for the global trend comes from a spike in the data surrounding the technology we use. From 2010 to 2016, smartphone use skyrocketed and has remained drastically high since. The time spent using smartphones and similar tech is time spent in a socially isolated manner, she says — and that has huge implications for both mental health and for society. 

“Globally, it’s the most consistent [factor]. All of the sudden, the whole world had them.”  

Why mental health is important and how smartphones affect it

Dr. Thiagarajan points out the fact that so many of the factors correlated with low MHQ scores (individualism, performance orientation, and the like) are bound up in an increase in social isolation, something that smartphone use compounds greatly. 

Studies that focus on individuals who discard their smartphones have brought about mixed results in terms of increased satisfaction and mental health, but it’s likely an individual might still feel isolated if everyone else in their environment is still looking at their devices. Making connections — attempting to escape social isolation — is a difficult thing to do in that kind of environment. 

A global map showing the six geographic regions whose participants took part in the study.
via Sapien Labs

Why does this matter? The issue goes well beyond people simply feeling isolated and alone and connects to how mental health affects physical health. As the Sapien Labs report shows, low mental health scores were correlated with higher rates of sexual violence, suicide, and violent assault. Improving people’s mental health could very well save lives. 

Equally important is the fact that humans are social animals, and face-to-face social interaction, it turns out, is one of the most important things to a person’s development in just about every way, from the mental to the physiological. 

"That’s a scary formula for what will happen to society."

“Those of us who grew up before the smartphone was so ubiquitous, we would spend two to four hours a day interacting with people, in person. By the time we arrived in college at age 18, we would’ve spent probably 15 to 20,000 hours in unstructured social engagement with our peers,” Dr. Thiagarajan explains. “If you look at this generation that’s now 18, the number of hours they’ve spent in in-person social engagement is maybe about 1,500 to 5,000.” 

If those numbers sound a bit unnerving, that’s because they probably should. Dr. Thiagarajan points out that spending all that time in social engagement could easily be viewed as wasteful from a productivity standpoint. Nothing is being made or actively contributed to the economy, for example. This couldn’t be further from the truth, however. 

“What you build in those 10-20,000 hours playing with your friends is how to recognize body language, read the tone of voice, resolve conflict, figure out how to make plans as a group, and in the process, often build the kind of relationships that can last a lifetime,” she emphasizes.

“What we’re learning is there’s this breakdown of what we call the social self. People no longer feel they’re a part of the social fabric or are able to form and maintain strong relationships. When you have such little experience in negotiating human relationships by the time you come to college, it’s going to be hard to negotiate them. You’ve got the experience that a seven to ten-year-old used to have.”

Of course, smartphones aren’t the only culprit in increasing social isolation. The world is more online than it has ever been. Thanks in part to the COVID pandemic, more and more young children attend classes digitally, and they have to manage ever-increasing amounts of homework. Still, today’s children are born into a world of screens. Rather than looking at people’s faces while being wheeled around at the park, Dr. Thiagarajan underlines, they might be playing on an iPad. 

“The big danger in [having low levels of mental health],” she says, “is we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. When you're distressed or depressed, you’ll interpret a neutral face as threatening, or a neutral situation as negative. That’s a scary formula for what will happen to society if everyone views everything through a negative lens.” 

Mental health policy and change 

Dr. Thiagarajan advocates that action be taken. For her, even while the data is still being analyzed and questions remain to be explored, there is enough of a case to support societal change, even suggesting potential changes in policy at various levels. 

Aligning with Wright’s ideas about progress, she says our focus must be preventive rather than treatment-based, as the scale of the problem is so great and we simply don't have easy ways to undo the consequences of these social deficiencies.

Line graphs showing the increase in percentages of people in the English-speaking world who feel they are
via Sapien Labs

Looking to the future, Sapien Labs aims to partner with other organizations conducting similar research to put together a framework for advocacy and change. She even floats the idea of banning cell phones from schools, saying it’s a serious enough issue that drastic measures be taken. While that may sound extreme to some, it could be among the best ways to ensure people don’t feel so disconnected from the social fabric they are a part of and prevent real harm from befalling themselves and their communities.

"Collectively, we have to do something about it."

This will give children time to build their “Social Selves” before they are launched into the world of smartphones. Schools might also offer courses on appropriate online behavior in preparation for this transition. After all, alcohol and drugs, two things that can have negative mental health consequences, are already banned for children, even if they are legal for adults.

“We have a much clearer insight into what this crisis looks like. We can now start to think about and formulate possible policy and propose regulation,” Dr. Thiagarajan says. 

Dr. Thiagarajan and her colleagues will face an uphill battle. As with climate change advocacy, even when calls to action are backed by mountains of hard evidence, when that evidence runs counter to entrenched economic incentives, progress is incremental at best or actively resisted at worst. 

She admits that it might be difficult to bend the ears of those making big policy decisions but remains confident that this is an issue that will garner increasing awareness at every societal level. 

“What’s going to happen, I think, is that people are going to start to see this in their kids. As parents, it starts to become a bigger issue. From the perspective of people realizing how much their kids are struggling, that should galvanize some effort towards change. Instead of asking what I should do for my one child, the question is, “What do we need to do collectively, as a society?” If we don’t want all of our children falling off the cliff in this way, then collectively, we have to do something about it.”

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