Last week our graduate fellow, Sarah Garrett, took a look at whether teens today are less happy than their counterparts were in the past. The results are provocative and hopeful. But readers raised some important questions. Can we contrast Garrett's results—the clear majority of teens are "pretty happy" or better—with trends in teen depression? Kids might think of themselves as happy, but aren't they more anxious than previous generations? I'm reading Beautiful Boy right now, David Sheff's gripping memoir about his son Nic's meth addition, and it is hard to imagine that Nic's peers are doing better than teens have historically. Sheff notes that in a study of school teachers in the 1940's, the teachers' biggest complaints about the adolescents in their charge were along the lines of gum-chewing and note-passing.
Now, teachers, parents, and pretty much everyone I know worry more about school violence than spit-balls, about paralyzing anxiety than minor class disruptions.
And we have cause to worry. About 13% of girls and 5% of boys in the U.S. have had a major depressive episode as teenagers—and depression is the leading cause of suicide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among American kids ages 10-24, behind homicide and accidental death. Between 1970 and 1993, the homicide rate for teens more than doubled, but then dramatically declined in 2002, where it remained in 2004 (the most recent year that data is available). In the 15 years prior to 2003, the teen suicide rate declined about 28%. But in 2004 the teen suicide rate increased 8%.
There are some consistent and significant inequalities between groups that are important to point out among who is happy and who isn't. For example, teenage boys are three and a half times more likely to commit suicide and five times more likely to be murdered than girls.
Because we know that the average experience may be quite different from subgroup experiences, Garrett took a closer look at her data. Below is her selection of subgroup comparisons by gender, maternal education, and race/ethnicity.
The MTF study does not collect information about household income, but it does collect data on respondents' parents' education. Teen happiness appears to differ by maternal schooling, with the most educated mothers having the most happy children, and vice versa. Since these data were first collected, children of mothers with college (or higher) degrees have been significantly more likely to be "very happy" than have children of mothers who did not graduate from high school. In 2006, for example, almost 27% of teens with very highly educated mothers were saying that in general they were "very happy," compared to 16% of teens with the least educated mothers; they were nearly 88% more likely to be in that highest happiness category.
American teens whose mothers have the lowest levels of education—and who are therefore more likely to have lower levels of income, live in less safe areas of town, etc.—are much more likely than other teens to say that, in general, they are "not too happy." This inequality appears to have intensified in recent years.
Happiness clearly differs across racial categories as well. Up until 2005 the MTF study coded their respondents as "white" or "non-white," so for the most part that is as much as we can know about respondent race. White American teens are significantly more likely to be happy than are non-white American teens; this pattern has held as far back as these data have been collected.
The good news is that the discrepancy between whites and non-whites appears to be shrinking as both do better. If we focus in on the proportion of youth describing themselves as being "very happy," we can see a clearly upward trend for both groups—and a narrowing gap—starting in the early- to mid-1990s.
There is no significant difference between the proportion of male and female youth in 2006 who were "pretty happy" or better in 2006, which is case for nearly all of the years since the data have been collected.
However, when we focus in on the proportion of teens who say they are "very happy," a clear discrepancy emerges. In the mid-1970's young women were significantly more likely to be "very happy" than young men were—almost 45% more likely in 1976, the height of women's happiness advantage in this dataset. However, this advantage disappeared by the mid-1980s, and the trend ultimately flipped. By the mid-1990s male high school seniors were significantly more likely than their female counterparts to say they were in the highest happiness category. For example, in 2006 male high school seniors were 30% more likely to describe themselves as "very happy" than their female peers were.
Though there's not enough information in this dataset to fully explain why these discrepancies between race, maternal education, and gender exist or why they've changed (or stabilized) over time, it is tempting to speculate. For example, why are the children of well-educated mothers so much more likely to be happy? (Does college really make you a better parent?) Next week the third and last posting in this series will offer a little insight (though perhaps not more than an educated guess) into why these trends might be what they are.
More information about the data I used, some references, and my tables are posted on the GoodWiki.
Sarah Garrett is a 2007-2008 Hornaday Graduate Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center.
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