There’s a spiking mental health crisis among America’s youth. Would a driver’s license be one solution?
Last week I read a stunning article on the mental health crisis among American youth. Between 2009 and 2021, the share of high school students who said they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” jumped from 26 to a 44 percent. For adolescents ages 10 to 19, emergency room visits for self-harm jumped 88 percent from 2001 to 2019.
This was happening before the pandemic. In 2018, suicide rates for people aged 10–24 jumped almost 60 percent after plateauing from 2000 to 2007. And the share of adolescents reporting a major depressive episode jumped 60 percent between 2007 and 2019. The pandemic simply accelerated these trends, including a shocking 45 percent increase in the number of self-injury and suicide cases in 5- to 17-year-olds in the first half of 2021.
It’s not entirely clear what sort of connection exists between this crisis and social media. A large study of more than 84,000 people of all ages in Britain found that the relationship between social media use and teen well-being was “fairly weak.”
But. The study did find heavy social media use does generate lower reports of life satisfaction at certain ages: 11–13 for girls, 14–15 for boys, and again at age 19 for both sexes. And therein lies a solution suggested by Peggy Noonan.
In her April 7th “Declarations” column, Noonan asked: “Why can’t we put a strict age limit on using social-media sites: You have to be 18 to join TikTok, Youtube, Instagram? Why not? You’re not allowed to drink at 14 or drive at 12; you can’t vote at 15. Isn’t there a public interest here?” She suggested youth have to get a driver’s license to use some sites.
I’m drawn to this. Why? Two words: Adolescence and automobiles. Start with adolescence, a word literally pulled out of thin air in the 15th century. It denoted the beginning of age-segmentation, an arbitrary distinction between ages (watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on how age-segmentation has contributed to a sharp decline in education).
In 1904 G. Stanley Hall popularized the “discovery” of adolescence. Adolescents were, to him, the future of the race: “There is color in their souls, brilliant, livid, loud.” He imagined adolescence as “a new birth,” religious fervor and sexual passion coming together. But this required self-reliance, to “do, be, and say” whatever an adolescent felt was best for them.
Self-reliance became more reachable with the automobile, which became popular in the 1920s—the same period when the word “teenage” came into use. Teenagers gained increasing independence with driving freedom. This coincided with the word “dating” entering American language. The automobile helped to facilitate dating, young people “finding themselves” through exploring relaxed sexual attitudes apart from their parents. This proved to be the death of parental authority and courting, when parents supervised a young man who wooed a daughter (usually in the home’s parlor) in the hopes of marriage.
The advent of the automobile also proved to be the death of many human lives. As more automobiles hit the road, more people got hit. It was determined that some sort of strict age limit on driving a vehicle was in the public interest—a driver’s license.
At the beginning of the 20th century, driver’s licenses didn’t exist. Anyone could operate a vehicle, even if they had no idea what they were doing. As the number of automobiles increased, states slowly began to require people to be licensed in order to drive, buttressing the public’s (and parents’) concern that young people should not be driving.
Which brings us to using social-media sites. They’re 21st century driver’s licenses, except there’s no test, no age limit, no parental authority. TikTok, Instagram, etc. transport users into whatever metaverse they feel is best for “finding themselves.” But what if young people have no idea what they are doing? What if they’re not ready to take the wheel? What if some social-media sites overwhelm a young person’s brain? There’s evidence for this.
The most compelling is where we don’t see a mental health crisis: rates of smoking, drugs, alcohol and sex have declined among high school students over the last decade, continuing trends that started over two decades ago. The notable exception is a rise in excessive smartphone and computer usage over the last decade. Does this correlate with a decline in teens getting a driver’s license? Does excessive use of social-media sites make us indifferent to real life (watch U2’s Numb)? Why get a real license if you already have virtual one?
And does this rise in excessive smartphone and computer usage over the last decade correlate with a rise in depression, self-harm, and suicide over the same period of time? If so, Noonan’s suggestion has merit. If in the public interest we say someone can’t drive a car at 12, why do we assume a 12-year-old can handle TikTok? A driver’s license would buttress the public’s (and parents’) concern about our spiking mental health crisis.
 John Gillis, Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1750–Present (Academic, 1974).
 Cornelius Murphy, Reflections on Old Age: A Study in Christian Humanism (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015), 35.