Wednesday, February 15, 2023
It's Wednesday, February 15th, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A Massive Cry for Help: Teen Girls Wrestle With Record Levels of Sadness and Depression. Why?
Very interesting, very troubling report out. Headlines just about all across the mainstream media. The headline in The New York Times yesterday was this, "Teen Girls Report Record Levels of Sadness." Similar headlines, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, you go down the list, almost every major newspaper, almost every major news site has an article with a similar headline. And all this is traceable back to data released on Monday of this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States government. And one of the things we need to note is that numbers are attached here. According to the lead, for example, in The New York Times report, "Nearly three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021, double the rate of boys, and one in three girls seriously considered attempting suicide."
Now clearly this is the kind of news story that should have the attention of all people, and in particular of Christians, and perhaps most strategically Christian parents and those who work with young people. The numbers are absolutely alarming. Now, we'll be looking closely at those numbers in just a moment, but the fact is that what you have here is a massive cry for help. And of course it is being contextualized here as representing a study that says that among young people, and adolescent girls in particular, there's a massive cry for help.
But I want to say from a Christian worldview perspective, as you look at this article, this appears to be writ large across our society. A massive call out for help. I've taken a closer look at the data and it is extremely alarming. There's just no other way to put it. In Christian moral terms, we are looking at a crisis, and it's a crisis that has been building for some time. One of the things you have to put into play here is the fact that yes, the numbers are markedly higher than in similar reports in the past, but that raises the question, what's an acceptable level? What should be considered a normal level of these pathologies, of this kind of trouble with this kind of depression?
And furthermore, even of more extreme levels of depression and action on the part of adolescents in the United States, and in particular adolescent girls. And by the time you get to the end of the data, the number's pretty clear. 87% of the young people reporting this kind of trouble are young females. They are adolescent girls and young women, and the numbers are just horrifying. They are heartbreaking. But we need to look at this and recognize number one, this is self-reported data.
So this is not something coming from clinicians. This is something coming from the self-reporting of American young people. Now that doesn't make it less troubling, in one sense, it might make it more troubling, but there are some very significant questions here. Sarah Toy, reporting on the same report for The Wall Street Journal, I think uses more perceptive moral language when she writes, "Nearly three out of five high school girls in the U.S. who were surveyed reported feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness in 2021, a roughly 60% increase over the past decade, new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found." The next paragraph, "Both high school girls and boys reported experiencing mental health challenges. Girls reported record high levels." And then what's listed after that is sexual violence, sadness, and suicide risk. Now by the time you look at the data, I just want you to understand something.
The alarm should be very clear when you're looking at the fact that more than half of all girls report some level of this trouble. And indeed, millions upon millions of young girls and young women are reporting extreme conditions of hopelessness, of a lack of joy and sadness in their lives, even leading to contemplating hurting themselves. Now as we look at this, there are so many things for Christians to consider. For one thing, we have to ask the most fundamental question, which is how do we help these young people? That's the most urgent question. And then secondarily, how do we prevent, or how do we even look at the pathology of this kind of data, in order to say this is not right? We as a society have a responsibility to fix something that has evidently gone horrifyingly wrong. But then let's consider some other issues.
Let's look at a longer period, a longer perspective. So for one thing, let's just take adolescence. Well, you could say adolescents going all the way back to the ancient cultures was a time in which it was clear there's a bit of what the Germans called Sturm und Drang. It's a bit of stress and turmoil. In one sense, that's the very definition psychologically and emotionally of adolescents. But we also have to recognize something else. Even as the ancients, and in particular the ancient Greeks, they're the ones who actually coined the term we know as adolescent. When you look at that, they recognized there was this transitional period between childhood and adulthood and of necessity, both physically and emotionally, it's going to be something of a rollercoaster. Furthermore, something else to recognize is that every successful civilization has understood that it has to put a great deal of its civilizational energies into making sure that children successfully make that transition.
Girls becoming women, boys becoming men, not only biologically but also socially, and for that matter, psychologically and emotionally. The apostle Paul actually speaks about this himself when he says, "When I was a boy, I thought as a boy, when I was a child, I thought as a child, but now I am a man." In other words, there is a process of transition, and you need to understand that in every society it's been something of a challenge. And as you look at this, you need to recognize there's another kind of challenge and there's a differentiation between females and males in this entire process. For example, if you do look at ancient history, in almost no ancient culture is there a massive pathology in terms of crime of, say, misbehavior on a rampant criminal level by adolescent girls and young women. No, that tends to be located among adolescent boys and young men.
But when it comes to emotional fragility and when you're looking at this kind of emotional harm, it is just as disproportionate if not more so. This dataset coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us most urgently that what's new here is not what troubled so much the ancient Greeks, and for that matter, something that wasn't even on the radar in this sense, say five years ago. It is a very significant uptick in these pathologies and in these dangers, even since a year like 2011, with a significant uptick the closer you get to the current year of report, which in this case is 2021/2022. So let's just ask the question. When you are looking at a massive increase on the scale of this kind of trouble being reported, this level of sadness being described, is this because there has actually been this much of a multiplication of sorrow and trouble?
Or is it because more people, and in this case especially more young women and young girls, are ready to say, no, this is something that is afflicting me, it's troubling me. Now, there is likely to be some combination of those two things, as any social scientist will tell us, but one of the things we come to know is that when there is a study like this, it's not just something of a survey that offers us a profile of adolescent young people, it is actually a survey that offers us something of a profile of the entire country. This data set also reveals new questions, new issues, and new problems when it comes to young people that had not existed previously. For one thing, we are talking about the rise of the LGBTQ identity and the great surge here, and in particular looking at non-binary and transgender identified young people.
And the article tells us that there is a surge in sadness, and in emotional trouble, and in a sense of persistent depression, and even of the threat of self-violence, that is found among LGBTQ youth. And there is evidently a particular struggle when it comes to those who identify as transgender or non-binary, which by the way raises a different issue. Because as we are looking at this pattern, we as Christians just need to speak with great empathy and great concern because we're heartbroken over all of this, but we actually want to help. And the question is how might we help? How might a society at large, how might parents, how might those who love young people actually do something to make a difference? And let me tell you what is avoided at all costs. It is unasked, it's unaddressed here, and that is whether or not the technological and more importantly, the moral revolutions of recent years have radically increased the stress, radically increased the depression, increased the trouble, among young people.
Now, a couple of very interesting things. Parents pay close attention to this. The smartphone has existed only since 2012, and the vast majority of adolescents and young people didn't have them in 2012. Now, just do the math. We're just talking 10 years, a decade later into the 11th year. As you look at this, you need to recognize that mental health professionals and those at the CDC are recognizing that there is a correlation. Now, again, they don't want to argue causation, but let's just make a morally honest statement here. We understand there is causation as well as correlation between the use of the smartphone and especially the rise of now ubiquitous and often tortuous social media. That leads to an awful lot of the trouble we're talking about here. Now, I want to be really, really clear. This does not say that persistent depression and concerns about emotional health are limited to girls, and they're not present among boys in these adolescent years.
That is not what we are saying. We are saying two things. The numbers, the percentages here, are by no means equal. Far more young women are reflecting this than young men. And the other thing is, and this is the major point of the headlines, that the radical jump in those who are reporting these kinds of troubles, they're more likely to be found among females than among males. Now, as you look at this, again, there has always been, throughout human society, a problem with the adjustment from childhood to adulthood. It has often been displayed in too much energy, misdirected among boys, and too much emotional vulnerability, which tends to be more commonly associated with problems with girls and young women. Now, it's interesting that in Sarah Toy's article in The Wall Street Journal, she pulls this out of the CDC data: "Girls are particularly vulnerable to anxiety and depression, mental health experts say, given the higher rates of harassment and discrimination they face compared with boys. They also face career pressures, high beauty standards and the expectation of motherhood, they say."
Now, I'm not arguing that none of those things have anything to do with these statistics. I am saying when you look at the smartphone, when you look at the rise of social media, and when you look at the fact that the unique vulnerabilities of the female has to do with evaluation, has to do with self-esteem and self-image, has to do with body image. That's not to say these things don't affect boys and young men, it's just to say it is disproportionate. I think any honest person can even look at this data, and it is irrefutable. The issues raised here, the troubles raised here, the crisis raised here is not evenly distributed throughout the adolescent population, which is why the headline in The Wall Street Journal is, "Teen Girls Reveal Record Levels of Sadness."
Again, New York Times, "Teen Girls Report Record Levels of Sadness." Very interesting, same headline, roughly, USA Today, "Teen Girls Report Sadness." But it's also very important for us to note that it is not just females, adolescent females, who are identified here as being particularly at risk. And I'm not even going to go into the numbers, but they are simply staggering. It's almost hard to believe that adolescent young people, and in this case adolescent girls and young women, could possibly be affected by the kinds of sadness at the levels and percentages that are reported here. But nonetheless, let's just say as Christians, we're morally obligated to take this seriously.
The Story Behind the Headlines: Our Society is Marked by Awful Maladies, But Just Will Not Face Them Honestly
But the other thing we need to note is that in the CDC data, there is also a concentration on the fact that there's another particular vulnerability which is showing up in LGBTQ students, and as I said, particularly those who identify as transgender and non-binary.
I want to ask us as Christians to think about one dimension of this story, which is that as you're looking at this, even the headlines, they start out with a gender-specific reference, teen girls. But then the article also swerves into the issues of non-binary identity and transgender identity. So one of the things I think we need to recognize as Christians is that as a society, we have actually inserted into the equation of adolescents, troubling enough, an enormous uncertainty, a wild radical, to speak in chemical terms. And that is the entire confusion over gender at the very time that young people need less confusion, not more confusion. The project of the self, which has always been a concern of adolescents, the project of the self is now all the way transformed into a situation in which young people are told you not only have to determine who you are, and what you want to be, and the big life choices, and who you are emotionally and all the rest, what your worldview is.
Now you have to decide how you are going to identify yourself, and that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with your birth sex. It's another way of saying your body really isn't telling you anything that's determinative. Now that, I think, we need to say as Christians is problematic at any age, but especially at the time when the body is undergoing the massive changes of puberty. Just understand. I think Christians just need to say this out loud. The radical increase in vulnerability that injecting more confusion, not to mention ideologically toxic confusion and spiritually damaging confusion, just how much that toxicity just multiplies the problem, which is another way of saying the very adults who are supposed to be protecting young people and helping to guide a successful transition from being a boy to a man, and from being a girl to a woman.
We are now a part of a society where the most powerful forces in the society and the cultural elites in the society, Hollywood, joined by federal authorities and the academic elite, they're all saying, "Hey, adolescence just wasn't troubling enough. It wasn't difficult enough, it wasn't complex enough, it wasn't an issue of vulnerability, not enough. No. What we need is to make adolescence more troubling. We need to make adolescents themselves more brittle. We need to add to the project of the self the decision as to whether or not you are even male or female, as assigned by biology."
And we understand that means as assigned by God, and thus we're saying to young people, we are going to offer reports and we are going to lament as a society all the Sturm und Drang, and all the anxiety, and all the sadness, and all the fragility that is now evermore present in your lives. But even though the society at large has massively contributed to it, what the society is going to do now is say that what the society must do is dive even deeper into those pathologies in order to supposedly solve the problem.
Now, here's another thing you need to note. As you look at the culture's elites, this is what the cultural elites now believe. If there is a problem like this, if there is enormous sadness, and loneliness, and alienation, and particularly amongst say LGBTQ young people, then it is the fault of the non-LGBTQ young people that this is the case. Because their argument is that there would be happiness and wholeness amongst the transgender identified or non-binary young people, if not for the fact that society judges them, and for that matter even notices them in this way. So in other words, we are now at the point where in the United States of America looking at this problem, so let's just say we are taking this problem seriously. I'm going to accept at this point the numbers as given to us by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But you'll notice that in the United States right now, you're going to have one side that's going to say, look, the problem is people who just won't give up traditional understandings of male and female, who won't get with the pronouns, who won't get with the non-binary, who won't get what the LGBTQ revolution and all of its upcoming permutations. There are those who say, look, those people are the problem, and they are causing all of these pathologies among those who would otherwise be happy as adolescents and young adults in terms of their LGBTQ identity. But here's where Christians need to understand something, and we need to say this out loud. Our worldview, based upon scripture, tells us that those who are rebelling against creation order actually cannot be happy, cannot be satisfied, cannot know their true identity, and cannot be at personal peace so long as they are at war, not only with creation, but the Creator.
So on the Christian side of this conversation, we are saying to those on the other side, you say you care about these young people, and yet you have been driving the very movements that are at least correlated with the radical increase in all of these issues of sadness, and loneliness, and worse, among young people, and in particular among teenage girls. And yes, as you look at this, here's something every other society has recognized. There have been epidemics of many of these emotional, and furthermore, many of these adolescent phenomena, and they are far more present among girls, to the extent that those that are recorded throughout human history, if not exclusively dealing with adolescent females are, and this is an understatement, overwhelmingly so.
Now, this leads to another issue in the news and the report here is by Azeen Ghorayshi, and this is in a report in The New York Times, the headline, Out of the Grip of Tics, subhead, a wave of spasms that have been linked to TikTok has ebbed, showing the resilience of adolescents. Now once again, let's think. Smartphone since 2012, social media even more recently than that, but now nearly universal among American adolescents and young people, and with enormous damage. Enormous damage. This particular article tells us that there has been an outbreak of adolescents and young people who have had fits of spasms due to some experience with TikTok.
Now, frankly, I think there are any number of reasons to stay away from TikTok, because of its general toxicity, because of the inanity of it, because the Chinese Communist Party has a great deal of influence over it. And yes, evidently because there have been outbreaks of spasms of tics among some of the young people and adolescents looking at TikTok, the article is datelined from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. "Aiden's tics erupted one day after school in early 2021, about a month after the long pandemic lockdown had ended the 16 year old convulsed while walking into the house, head snapping and arm swinging, sometimes letting out high-pitched whistles and whoops. Well, they rush the young person to the emergency room, "But doctors found nothing wrong. After calling a neurologist. The family learned that more than a dozen adolescents in Calgary had recently experienced similar spasms."
You might have jumped ahead of me to know that at least some in the media are referring to this phenomena as TikTok tics, but we then also read an historical perspective, "But similar outbreaks have happened for centuries. Mysterious symptoms can spread rapidly in a close-knit community, especially one that has endured a shared stress." Assuming here that the stress is most particularly COVID-19 and the pandemic. One adolescent specialist quoted from Calgary said, "Adolescence is a period of rapid social and emotional development." Speaking of young people, he said, "They are like sponges grabbing onto new skills to cope." The most interesting section of the article then follows. "Historians, looking back thousands of years, have come across stories of patients, most often women, with tremors, seizures, paralysis, and even blindness that cannot be explained. The ancient Greeks called it," wait for it now, "hysteria, and blamed a wondering uterus."
The ancient Greeks called it hysteria. Sigmund Freud deemed the condition conversion and theorized it was caused by supposed traumatic experiences. Listen to this, "In more recent decades, scientists have gained a greater understanding of how anxiety, trauma, and social stress can spur the brain to produce very real physical symptoms. Even if body scans or blood tests show no trace of them. When these illnesses interfere with day-to-day life, they are now called functional disorders." By the way, a reader could be forgiven confusion in looking at how this article in the New York Times begins. The young person is identified as Aiden, traditionally a male associated name, but it turns out that the teenager is non-binary. And so as you're looking at this, you recognize that many parents, school authorities, mental health professionals, political leaders, are asking the question, what's gone wrong?
And yet, from a Christian perspective, what's gone wrong is exactly what is in front of us in so many of these articles. But what we are looking at is the fact that across the divide, between those who are looking from a gospel and creation order perspective, and by the way, almost all societies throughout time have gotten the creation order argument right, even if they have no clue about the gospel argument. But on the other side of that, you have people who say, look, if there are pathologies here, they have to be caused by the people who won't get with the program.
We Respect and Love in Accordance with Truth: A Christian Response to the Troubling Realities Our Young People Face
I want to put all of this in a larger Christian frame and this should be our concern, and that's why we spent so much time on this issue today. This does offer us a pathological report about our society, but even as that's important, we also just need to understand there are young people in a great deal of trouble.
And so let's talk about how we would address the crisis of young people in trouble. Perhaps a young person you know, perhaps one close to you, or someone in your church, or someone who's a friend of one of your children. What in the world do we say? Well, in the first place, we address respect and love for every single human being, but we can't do that on the terms that so many of the moral revolutionaries are demanding.
But nonetheless, one of the signs of a Christian commitment is that we do not back off and go home angry even if we are rejected, even if our hope and help and assistance is not welcome. This is one of the things the Christian Church has had to learn throughout the centuries. Sometimes there are people who do not want to be helped by the church or by Christians, but the church and Christian believers have to remain open to that help, and open and available and desiring to offer that help, in the event anyone should turn to us.
Parents need to understand, Christian parents in particular, that what we have here is evidence of the fact that we are doing something to our young people that is inherently dangerous, unsettling, destabilizing. Social media has a lot to do with it. A smartphone has a lot to do with it. The social context of adolescence has a lot to do with it. One of the things we need to note is that young people, and in particular adolescents at the very time, they are trying to find themselves and given their hyper sociability, especially among females, given their hyper sociability, there are such emotional vulnerabilities. Increasingly, they are separated from their families. Increasingly, they are separated from their parents, living almost independent lives. And I just say to Christian parents, Christian pastors, Christian churches, understand that if we give ourselves to that trajectory, we are a part of the problem.
There's also a pattern here that just cries out to us, and that is that yes, gender matters, as in male and female, and let's be clear, there are incredible temptations. There are incredible vulnerabilities that fall to both genders, both the boys and girls, young men and young women. But even though there's an overlap like in a Venn diagram, in terms of emotional vulnerability and all the rest, the fact is there is also a distinctive that is male and a distinctive that is female. And even addressing this honestly and compassionately is infinitely complicated by a society who says, by the way, male and female is a choice. It's a matter of identity. It's a matter of self-expression. It is as if we have taken the hand grenade of adolescence and said, let's blow it up into a neutron bomb. So long as we are in the world, Jesus said to us disciples, we will have trouble.
But you know what? Christians do not face that trouble without resources or without hope, and without responsibility. We have a great responsibility. We can't solve the problem of all the pathologies around the world, but the Christian Church and Christian believers, Christian parents and Christian friends, can do something to help young people who throughout human history have always faced a difficult period between childhood and adulthood.
But the very survival of human civilization, and even more intimately, the flourishing and prospering and health of the young person close to you, and young people in general, depends upon those of us who love young people making that process less and not more complicated. And to let young people know God is using this period in their lives to help to show them who they are according to his plan, and to make very clear that even though there are self-identity issues that need to be addressed, they are not lost in the cosmos as if they are constructing their identity right down to their gender, as if they're starting with the blank page.
Thanks be to God, we do not. I had planned to proceed to other issues in today's consideration of The Briefing, but in reality it just didn't happen because this issue is so large. If the future of young people in America and in our homes, in our churches, doesn't deserve this much attention, then what does?
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
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