In a manuscript recently published in SSM Mental Health, Catherine Gimbrone and colleagues investigated the role that political beliefs play in shaping adolescent psychological wellbeing.
After decades of relative stability, adolescent mental health has sharply declined over the past decade, particularly among girls. Researchers have been unable to identify the causes of these trends, resulting in a growing mental health crisis among adolescents. Recent studies have focused on digital engagement and screen time as potential causes, but findings have been mixed. Another potential cause that had not been examined empirically, however, was adolescents’ political beliefs.
During this period of increasing mental distress, adolescents endured a series of significant political events. Those who grew up during the digital technology age have also been more attuned to political events than prior generations, likely due to ubiquitous and rapid access to online news sources. Importantly, political beliefs are related to mental health among adults, such that conservatives often fare better than liberals. They hypothesized that political beliefs, which encapsulate many aspects of lived experiences and social identity, might inform mental health trends among adolescents as well and that outcomes might differ by sociodemographic groups.
In both descriptive and regression analyses, they used cross-sectional self-report survey data from Monitoring the Future which included large, nationally-representative samples of US 12th-graders from 2005 to 2018. Primary analyses highlighted those who identified as liberal or conservative because these group are most prevalent in the US. They assessed four internalizing symptoms scales, including depressive affect, self-esteem, self-derogation, and loneliness, which are indicators of mood and anxiety disorders. Using linear regression, they analyzed moderation of time trends by political beliefs, sex, and parental educational attainment while also controlling for factors including race, religiosity, and geographic region.
They found that trends in internalizing symptoms among 12th-grade students diverged by political beliefs such that, while internalizing symptom scores worsened over time for all adolescents, they deteriorated most quickly for female liberal adolescents. Beginning in approximately 2010, female liberal adolescents reported the largest changes in internalizing symptoms (b for interaction = 0.17, 95% CI: 0.01, 0.32), in contrast with male conservative adolescents who reported the smallest corresponding changes. Further, female liberal adolescents without a parent with a college degree reported the worst internalizing symptom scores compared to all other subgroups.
Linear regression predicted mean main effects of political beliefs on depressive affect and self-esteem by sex and parental education: Conservative and liberal 12th-graders from 2005 to 2018.
≥ parental college degree indicates that at least one parent had a college degree. Linear regression predictions graphed. All models were adjusted for geographic region, urbanicity, race/ethnicity, and GPA.
Their findings indicate that specific groups of adolescents, such as those identifying as female and liberal, are at a heightened risk of experiencing worsening internalizing symptoms over time. It is therefore possible that the ideological lenses through which adolescents view the political climate differentially affect their mental wellbeing. Research into the construct of adolescent political identity, the political content adolescents consume, and subsequent effects on their mental health is recommended by the researchers, especially during the highly politicized COVID-19 pandemic.