Preventing teenage depression

I just read Michelle Goldberg’s New York Times article about teenage depression in the US. She argues that social media is a likely cause of teenage depression. Others have suggested that this rise in depression is due to existential dread brought on by the decline of democracy or the deterioration of the planet’s ecosystems. Goldberg does not entirely dismiss these alternatives, but she does point out that the increase in teenage depression began in 2012, which was also the dawn of social media.

The article got me thinking about what other changes were taking place in 2012, which immediately led me to another big change in children’s lives— No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was launched in 2002. In 2012, the first group of children entirely educated under NCLB were 15 years old.

NCLB dramatically changed the US educational system, creating a pressure-cooker environment in which…

  • all children were expected to prepare for college,

It was the onset of high-stakes multiple-choice accountability testing in general, and No Child Left Behind, in particular, that fueled my initial motivation to develop assessments that help foster robust mental development (rather than the ability to produce correct answers).

In 2012, I participated in a massive longitudinal study of literacy in fourth to 8th-grade students attending East-coast inner-city public schools—the kind of schools most affected by NCLB. We developed Lectica’s reflective judgment assessment (the LRJA) for that project, which involved thousands of assessments. One of our principal findings was that the education these children were receiving seemed to limit their mental development relative to students in schools unaffected by NCLB (after controlling for ethnicity and socio-economic status, of course).

Because the LRJA requires open-ended responses, we also learned other things about these students. For example, an alarming number of them were angry with adult authorities. Many expressed this anger directly. Others protested by blowing off the assessment. Still others wrote responses that signaled apathy or included accounts of depression, bullying, or violence. Needless to say, my team found what we were learning about these students deeply disturbing.

Assuming that what we were learning about 9 to 14-year-olds in 2012 would apply to 15-year-olds, I would argue that NCLB itself is likely to be a major factor in the rise of teenage depression. Not only were teenagers being exposed to a new technology that would alter teenage life dramatically, but they were also less prepared to handle its negative aspects than they might have been if their minds had been allowed to develop more optimally. The kind of schooling NCLB fostered interfered with students’ mental development while making many of them so unhappy that they lost trust in adult authority. It’s easy to see how these two outcomes might have magnified the negative impact of social media.

The effects of NCLB are still with us. Public schools have not returned to their more progressive, pre-NCLB curricula. National and state standards are still one-size-fits-all and primarily focus on science, math, and something called literacy, American-style high-stakes-testing has gone international, and the mania for sending everyone to college is just beginning to diminish. Students continue to report “playing the education game” with disdain and/or resignation.

As pernicious as it may be, I don’t think we will eliminate adolescent depression and disaffection by going after social media. Instead, I think we need to dismantle the current public education system and replace it with one that provides all of our children with optimal conditions for development. Period. This means creating safe and nurturing educational environments that help children build healthy, richly connected, and agile minds that are equipped with the fundamental skills they will need to thrive in life and work. I further believe that this will require allowing children to develop at their own pace while following their own interests.

An educational system with these qualities would reduce teenage depression and disaffection by:

  • supporting mental health and wellbeing,



Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.