• Arwa Hanin Elrayess

Teenage Crazes Scientifically Explained: Depression, Difficulty With Sleep and Constant Arguments

Despite the coronavirus pandemic stripping us of many privileges we once took for granted, it has, at the very least, provided us with some much-needed time for self-reflection.

Not only have the past few months exposed unreliable governments, unstable health systems, and irresponsible populations, but they have also revealed how fragile the human mind really is.

A few months into lockdown have already taken a massive toll on the entire World’s mental health. Nonetheless, experts have warned that the impact will be significantly more severe for those with pre-existing mental health conditions, those with unstable financial incomes, and, unsurprisingly, teenagers.

For most teenagers across the globe, anxiety, depression, and stress are common challenges we face on a daily basis; and this pandemic certainly hasn’t made them any easier to handle.

So, in this video, I wanted to shift the spotlight from hardcore politics, to focus instead on an issue that has spiraled out of control in recent decades: declining mental health in teenagers.

I asked my friends to send me questions they had about any unexplained hardships they were facing, in hopes that I could find a scientific explanation behind them; because, sometimes, understanding why our bodies make us react certain ways can help us cope with our emotions, through reassuring us that most of what we feel is beyond our control.

Question #1

This was an interesting topic to research, as I discovered that increased rates of depression in teenage girls is not just a speculation; but a proven fact.

Teenage girls are 2 times more likely than boys to experience periods of declining mental health, which many believe is a direct consequence of modern day society.

Today, teenage girls tend to spend more time than boys on social media platforms that are known for their anxiety-inducing ideologies and trends.

In many cases, teenagers who try to obtain large social media followings on these platforms often take part in activities, not because they want to, but because they know it will garner the most attention.

This in itself encourages a range of insecurities that can lead to stress or general unhappiness; yet, it does not entirely explain why depression is so widespread among girls who do not conform to these unhealthy social media habits.

To identify the deeper scientific reasoning behind this phenomenon, we must first understand that depression does not develop only as a result of life circumstances.

Oftentimes, periods of unhappiness can emerge for absolutely no reason, leading scientists to believe that our bodies play a much larger role in the onset of mental disorders than environmental conditions do.

In particular, experts suspect faulty or insufficient neurotransmitters as being the driving force behind many psychological illnesses.

But what are neurotransmitters, anyways?

Neurotransmitters are the messages that are passed between our nerve cells. They are a form of communication that control everything from our ability to sleep to our daily mood.

They dictate how our bodies handle stressful situations, how willing we feel to seek achievement, as well as our ability to obtain emotions of happiness and pleasure.

Obviously, if the body suffers from a deficiency of certain neurotransmitters, a person is more vulnerable to having these bodily functions become nonfunctional; therefore, leading to anxiety, difficulty with concentration, poor sleep, and uncontrollable mood swings.

This is important because one of the main neurotransmitters responsible for our happiness, called serotonin, is largely affected by levels of the female hormone estrogen in the body, which rapidly increase during teenage years.

The graph below shows how estrogen production influences rates of depression across a female life-span. During childhood, when estrogen levels are low, depression rates follow the same trend. Yet, during puberty and reproductive years, estrogen levels skyrocket- and so does the prevalence of depression.

Males also produce estrogen but not nearly as much as females do. Instead, they generate a lot of testosterone during puberty, which has shown no effect on rates of depression.

Combining these factors may explain why females are more likely than males to experience frequent bouts of depression throughout puberty, and even into their adult lives.

Question #2

Perhaps one of the most essential developments we make during our teenage phases is establishing our own identities.

Throughout this period of our lives we begin to depend on our parents less and, instead, find ourselves spending more time with friends or in social gatherings.

But this is only natural.

If we don’t try to break away from the dependent relationships we have with our parents, then we would never be able to detach from them in the future to form our own families.

And even though this process is critical to adulthood, it can often result in misunderstandings and conflict.

This is because, in addition to undergoing significant personality changes, a teenager begins to assemble their own values and opinions of life, which can sometimes contradict those of their parents.

And although many of us teenagers tend to blame our parents for these frequent disputes, at a more realistic level, the development of the teenage brain is probably the main culprit.

During teenage years, an area of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, begins to mature. This region is responsible for enhanced coordination, comprehension and personality development, which explains why teenagers suddenly desire to break away from their previous childlike identities.

However, during teenage phases, the prefrontal cortex has not developed fully enough for us to depend on it entirely, so, we still rely on our amygdala.

Unlike the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala is directly associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviors and is considered the region of the brain most used during childhood.

Therefore, when a teenager is mentally developing, the prefrontal cortex makes us want to express our own opinions and prove our independence and ingenuity. Yet, the amygdala forces us to express these thoughts in an emotional manner- which usually results in the tantrums or arguments teenagers are notorious for.

Question #3

The topic of sleep and teenagers has always been one of great debate.

For years now, scientists have called upon schools to delay their opening times for teenage year groups, claiming that a later school day will help with our concentration and overall productiveness.

This is not because teenagers are fussy and don’t want to sleep in time; instead, it has a lot with our internal clocks.

Sleep is driven by 2 main process: the circadian system (which dictates when in the 24 hour day an individual is most likely to sleep or wake naturally), and the homeostatic drive for sleep (which is governed by how long you’ve been awake.)

During puberty, the body’s circadian rhythm is reset. The melatonin hormone, which communicates to the body the time of day, is produced at least 2 hours later at night in teens than in children and adults.

The reasons behind this phenomenon are still unclear, but scientists predict that it may be due to the sudden production of hormones during puberty pushing back the secretion of melatonin.

Teenagers usually feel sleepy anywhere between 11pm- 1 am, deeming any chance of going to sleep on time for school, and waking up with at least 8 hours of sleep, generally impossible.

Additionally, melatonin production is largely influenced by blue light, which we can get from the morning sky, or from the electronics we use.

When we receive blue light from digital devices later in the night, we signal to our bodies that there it is still morning outside, further delaying our internal clocks, and resulting in disorders like insomnia.

This is why health experts advise not to use electronics at least 2 hours before sleep.

Nonetheless, just like any clock, the circadian rhythm can be adjusted.

Through getting enough morning light when you wake up, and limiting screen time before bed, you can alter the times you naturally sleep and wake up.

All in all, teenage struggles, whether small or large, are not ones to be taken lightly. They are vital to our development, and the way we handle them can significantly alter our personalities as we grow.

The teenage phase is a lot like the pandemic we are experiencing today. There will be ups and downs, but in the end, we will emerge from the other side stronger than before.

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