- Adults went undercover as high school students on the A&E show “Undercover High.”
- They found that depression was surprisingly common at the high school – and social media and smartphones play a huge role.
- Teens often feel pressure to maintain their images online around the clock, leading to stress and feelings of inadequacy.
American teenagers are hurting.
In the past five years, depression and suicide rates among American teens have shot up. A 2016 study showed the number of teens who experienced a major depressive episode saw a 37% increase between 2005 and 2014.
The data suggest that the tandem of smartphones and social media shoulders much of the blame for the rise of teen depression.
Business Insider spoke to three adults who spent a semester undercover as high school students, and their accounts all support the idea that smartphones and social media have made being a teenager harder than ever.
The adults were part of a group that participated in the A&E documentary series “Undercover High,” which followed seven people between ages 21 and 26 as they navigated life at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kansas. They took classes, did homework, joined clubs, and interacted with students from all walks of life over the course of the spring 2017 semester in an effort to discover what being a teenager is like today.
Cell phones are ubiquitous at Highland Park, and teachers often have trouble restraining their students from using them during class.
As the undercover participants learned, the increasing prevalence of social media has put pressure on students to maintain their image around the clock.
“It’s not just your image at school that you have to uphold, like what kind of shoes you’re wearing, what brand are you wearing, what kind of backpack do you have,” Nicolette told Business Insider. “Now you have to uphold this image on social media: how many likes do you have, how many hearts do you have, who are you following, how many followers. And it’s just doubled the impact of what it was before.”
Another participant, a 23-year-old youth pastor named Daniel, was troubled by the way students equate the popularity of their social media posts with their self-esteem.
“Their self-value is attached to social media. It’s dependent on how many likes they get on a photo,” he told Business Insider. “That can be very troubling for a student, especially if no one likes someone’s photo.”
A third undercover student, 22-year-old Shane Feldman, said students become depressed when they compare their lives to the people they follow on social media.
“They are constantly seeing all these perfect images instead of the reality of the messiness and awkwardness of actual life,” Feldman, the founder of the youth-empowerment organization Count Me In, told Business Insider.
“They see all these perfect photoshopped images of celebrities and quote-unquote ‘influencers’ online. It’s given them a completely unrealistic, warped view of life, especially when many of these students have never traveled outside their states or haven’t even seen water.”
Addiction to social media can be especially dangerous for young women. A staggering 37% of girls report being depressed by the time they turn 17, the Washington Post reported.
At Highland Park, female students are constantly pressured to share risqué or even sexually graphic images of themselves with male students. Younger girls are especially prone to posting sexual images online.
“It’s something that’s normal for them, posting promiscuous pictures of themselves and rating themselves based on what others think and like off social media,” Nicolette told Business Insider.
“It’s not just about your skills, it’s about your image, your sexual image. That’s something that I think definitely contributes to the feelings that some of these at-risk students have toward their own self and how they portray themselves.”
The next episode of “Undercover High” airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on A&E.