America’s top export may be anxiety

America’s top export may be anxiety

Derek Thompson writes:

The argument that smartphones and social media are contributing to the rise in teen mental distress is strong. A number of observational and experimental studies show that teen anxiety started rising just as smartphones, social media, and front-facing cameras contributed to a wave of negative emotionality that seems to be sweeping the world.

But I have one small reason to question the strongest version of the smartphone thesis. You can find a summary of it on page 5 of this year’s World Happiness Report, a survey of thousands of people across more than 140 countries. “Between 2006 and 2023, happiness among Americans under 30 in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand declined significantly [and] also declined in Western Europe,” the report says. But here’s the catch: In the rest of the world, under-30 happiness mostly increased in this period. “Happiness at every age has risen sharply in Central and Eastern Europe,” the report says. “In the former Soviet Union and East Asia too there have been large increases in happiness at every age.”

This is pretty weird. Smartphones are a global phenomenon. But apparently the rise in youth anxiety is not. In some of the largest and most trusted surveys, it appears to be largely occurring in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. “If you’re looking for something that’s special about the countries where youth unhappiness is rising, they’re mostly Western developed countries,” says John Helliwell, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia and a co-author of the World Happiness Report. “And for the most part, they are countries that speak English.” [Continue reading…]

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