Global Survey Shows Young People Are Anxious Yet Hopeful
Youth reported the most anxiety in Spain, France and the U.S., and the least anxiety in Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia.By Sharon Lurye|Jan. 24, 2022By Sharon Lurye|Jan. 24, 2022, at 7:00 a.m.
Survey Shows Youth Are Anxious, HopefulMore
Young people wear masks on the island of Bali, Indonesia. In a UNICEF survey of over 22,000 people from 21 countries, Indonesia stood out as the most optimistic country surveyed.(SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP via Getty Images)
Young people around the world are more likely than older people to feel depressed and anxious, a global survey finds – yet they are also more hopeful.
UNICEF, the United Nations’ agency for humanitarian aid to children, partnered with the polling firm Gallup to survey over 22,000 people from 21 countries between January and June 2021. Half were between the ages of 15 and 24, while the other half were 40 or older, allowing analysts to compare how different generations felt about each other and about the world around them.
In the median country surveyed, 36% of young people said they “often” felt nervous, worried or anxious, compared to 30% of older people. Young people were also more likely than older people to say they often felt depressed or had little interest in doing things, 19% compared to 15%.[
READ:Surgeon General Issues Advisory on Youth Mental Health ]
"There is way more uncertainty than ever before,” said a 24-year-old Asian American woman in a follow-up, anonymous interview with UNICEF. She acknowledged that she had struggled with suicidal feelings.
“Today, it’s not so much wondering, like, how’s the world going to end,” she said. “It’s, like, how is the world changing? And how can we keep up with it? And can we keep up with it?"
The problem is more acute in richer nations: Youth reported the most anxiety in Spain, France and the U.S. and the least anxiety in Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. Young people in Japan, Spain, and the U.K. were most likely to say that children today will grow up to be economically worse off than their parents, while young people saw the brightest economic future in Ethiopia, Indonesia and Nigeria.
The survey supports other findings that COVID-19 has devastated the mental health of young people around the globe. A study published in October in The Lancet estimated that COVID-19 led to an additional 53 million cases of major depressive disorder and 76 million cases of anxiety disorders worldwide. Young people were affected more than older people and women more than men.
At the same time, however, young people in the UNICEF survey are also far more likely to express hope for the future. Fifty-seven percent of young people in the median country surveyed agreed that “the world is becoming a better place with each new generation.” Only 39% of older people felt the same.
"In the West, there’s this idea that young people today are overwhelmed with all the bad things happening in the world and there's this sense of doom and gloom – we find that they're quite optimistic," said Laurence Chandy, director at the Office of Global Insight and Policy at UNICEF.
Indonesia, which has seen its gross domestic product per-capita grow sevenfold since 1998, stood out as the most optimistic country surveyed. Eighty-two percent of younger Indonesians and 78% of older people agreed that the world is getting better with each new generation.
Indonesia’s history supports this belief in the power of new generations, says Clara Evi Citraningtyas, dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Business at Universitas Pembangunan Jaya. Young people have always played a large role in Indonesian reform movements, such as the student protests of 1998 that led to the fall of the dictator Suharto.
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"Throughout Indonesian history, it has been the youth/young generation who have brought about big changes," said Citraningtyas, who has studied how Indonesian youth responded to the pandemic.
Yet at the same time, 37% of young Indonesians said they often felt anxious or worried. It’s not the only country to experience high levels of both optimism and anxiety: In the U.S., young people are over twice as likely as older people to say they often feel anxious (50% versus 24%), but an even higher share of young people, 67%, say that the world is getting better.
"I think that we’ve come really far as a society. And even though there’s still a long way to go, I think that a lot of the youth today are pointing in the right direction," said one 15-year-old girl from Florida.
‘It is more accepted now that children express themselves.’
Although it is worrying that young people feel such anxiety, it may also be a sign that they are simply more open to talking about mental health.
"At school we have, like, mental health courses where they talk about how it’s normal to feel depressed and it’s normal to feel anxious and sad,” the American teenager said. “And you can turn to your friends or your family or somebody at school if you do need help and it’s not something that you should be ashamed of."
People of both generations were most likely to say that "mental health is a personal matter that people can best work through on their own" in India and Ethiopia. People in Zimbabwe and the U.S., on the other hand, were most likely to say that "mental health is best addressed by sharing experiences and seeking support from others."
Both adolescents and adults from across the world agreed that today’s generation is different when it comes to talking openly about their feelings.
"People are more open to talk about different topics,” a 15-year-old girl from Argentina said. “It is more accepted now that children express themselves and that they give their opinions.”
One 63-year-old man from rural Bangladesh told interviewers that in his day he saw neighbors dying of starvation. Children would get beaten if they asked their families for something they could not provide. Now, children in his country no longer live in such extreme poverty. They are unafraid to express their feelings and desires.
"I never ever asked for anything from my grandmother or my uncle. We used to live in fear … But my children are asking for whatever they want without any hesitation," he said.
Many children are spoiled, he said, because they are better-educated and think that makes them superior to their parents. At the same time, though, he admires their inventiveness.
“Children of our country are so brilliant,” the older man said.
‘I stopped dreaming.’
The increase in stress and anxiety among young people has many potential reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, was a major source of distress.
"I literally stopped thinking about my future as our school and exams are not being held for a long time,” said a 15-year-old girl from Bangladesh. “I stopped dreaming."[
READ:The Stress of ‘Climate Anxiety’ Spurs Action in Canada, the U.S. ]
In Kenya, another teenage girl said that COVID-19 caused widespread job losses and shut down schools. She studies by the light of a paraffin lamp because she cannot afford electricity.
"At times I go without food to eat, yet my neighbor has everything," she said. Nevertheless, she says her faith in God keeps her optimistic.
It might seem like climate change might also be a source of anxiety for young people, since they will likely live long enough to see its worst effects. However, the team at UNICEF indicated it was surprised to find that in many countries, especially poorer ones, the majority of people didn’t even know what the phrase “climate change” meant. In Nigeria, for example, 88% of young people could not define or hadn’t heard of the term.
Respondents in richer countries had more knowledge of and concern about climate change – but also some generational divides. In the U.S., the second-biggest emitter of carbon in the world, 62% of young people – but only 43% of older people – think the government should take significant action on climate change. In the U.K, both generations are united in their belief that the government needs to act.
Technology also has a major effect on mental health. Younger and older people around the world agreed that the internet is a major source of distress for young people, making them isolated and lonely.
“Nobody goes out of their homes, people live closed in with their computers, with the internet. Childhood was better in the old times," a 40-year-old man from Argentina said.
Although she’s less than half his age and lives on the other side of the planet, the 15-year-old girl from Bangladesh had largely the same feelings.
"No one leaves the house as everyone is reachable through social media,” she said. “I don't even go outside of our main gate. But at the time of my parents' boyhood they played together. Our peers are so self-centered."
At the same time, young people say that technology can also be a source of immense joy and connection. The young Asian American woman said that video games in particular had a huge influence on her life.
“It’s good to be alive now and be able to enjoy everyone’s creativity from all over," she said.Select a question to see what percent of people agreed:
Tags: India, health, technology, mental health, coronavirus, UNICEF, United Nations, surveys, polls
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