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Why We Must Care About America’s Teens

The serious problems they ​face should concern us all

Teens Sitting
Maskot/Getty Images

As AARP employees returned to their offices in March after nearly two years of working from home, I visited several of our locations to welcome staff members back. Often, I asked how their families were doing.

Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP
Jo Ann Jenkins
PHOTO BY TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS

Sadly, quite a few admitted that their teenage children were struggling. Some told me their children and grandchildren were dealing with serious issues of depression. Others said they knew teenagers with high levels of anxiety. As the mother of two, I can empathize with the stress they are dealing with.

These aren’t isolated accounts. Our accompanying story portrays an entire generation of teens facing challenges and anxieties in greater magnitude than previous generations did and in ways that we adults often struggle to comprehend.

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Put parents and grandparents in a room and, inevitably, talk turns to the challenges of our teens. Research supports their concern. Never in modern American history have rates of teen depression, loneliness and even suicide been so high. Years of pandemic living have only worsened the situation.

teen crisis image

Teens in Crisis: A Guide for Parents

Help your kids navigate online threats, skyrocketing anxiety, sexual pressure

Resources and Tips

Then there are the new challenges posed by technology. Smartphones are woven into the lives of teenagers in ways we grownups just cannot fully comprehend. Researchers note that the dramatic uptick in the teen mental health crisis dovetails with the arrival of the smartphone revolution.

Never in modern American history have rates of teen depression, loneliness, and even suicide been so high.

Of course, many of our teens are doing just fine: progressing through school, finding their passions, making us proud. But even they are being shaped by unprecedented cultural events, a surge in mass-shooting incidents, deep political and cultural discord, climate change, a sexual-identity revolution and, of course, a new world of technology in which nothing gets erased. That’s an awful lot for any 14-year-old to process.

And, as our report points out, this mental health crisis comes at a time when private, public and school-based mental health resources are flagging. Parents are desperate to find counselors and psychiatrists; the average wait time for a new consultation in one state is a shocking 13.6 weeks.

Why is AARP concerned? That’s easy: You’ve often told us nothing matters more than your families. To lead your best life, you need to know that your grandchildren and children (and nieces and nephews) are able to lead their best lives.

So AARP editors decided to take on the topic of modern teen life with depth and honesty. With the reports in this issue of the AARP Bulletin — and more found on our website, newsletters and social media channels — we hope you will better understand the forces your children or grandchildren face and how you can help.

In the meantime, press lawmakers to find ways to protect our kids from predatory practices of bad actors on social media platforms. The 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act puts “internet adulthood” at 13; that’s when companies can begin collecting data on children without parental consent and targeting them with ads and content designed to keep them online longer. Legislation can change this. The proposed Platform Accountability and Transparency Act would allow researchers to get insight into how social media algorithms operate, as well as how they target our kids — and us.

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