Changing Marriage Attitudes and Mental Health Among Youth:

What Could This Mean for Youth Relationship Education?

By Hailey Palmer and Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom-Line (at the Top): Recent research has found shifting trends among youth in two important areas: marriage attitudes and mental health. A substantial drop seems to have occurred in the percentage of youth who consider getting married to be important to them personally. Furthermore, researchers are finding large increases in mental health problems, such as depressionand anxiety, among teens. How might these trends affect youth relationship education?

Since the 70’s, the majority of high school seniors has consistently reported that having a good marriage and family life would be extremely important to them. As recently as 2017, 78% of high school senior girls and 69% of high school senior boys said marriage is extremely important.[i] As you can see in the figure below based on the “Monitoring the Future” survey, these attitudes have been quite stable.

However, the Pew Research Center recently reported what seems to be a large drop in the percentage of teens who consider marriage to be important to them personally.[ii]

Here is what they found:

  • Only 47% of teens ages 13-17 said getting married would be extremely important or very important to them personally as an adult.
  • Only 31% of teens from lower-income households reported marriage as extremely or very important to them; among higher-income households, 56% of teens said that getting married was a priority for them.

Such a stark difference in attitudes may be partially accounted for by differing methods of the two surveys. The Monitoring the Future survey asked the question only to high school seniors and asked about the importance of marriage and family. The Pew survey asked a wider age-range of youth (13-17) specifically about marriage (but not family). High school seniors might place somewhat more personal importance on marriage than their younger peers, but this would probably only account for a couple of percentage-point differences. Probably a more important difference is that the Monitoring the Future survey includes the personal importance of family and marriage, so this question may be picking up desires for children but not necessarily marriage.

Whether or not these differing questions and survey methods impacted this attitudinal trend, the recent Pew survey shows that most of today’s teens, especially lower income teens, are not placing importance on marriage as a personal life goal.

These findings spark important questions that relationship educators need to consider:

  • What does it mean for youth RE when less than half of youth report that getting married is important to them? How do we approach a population that generally doesn’t see the personal importance of marriage? And when marriage is less salient to youth, will participation in RE that discusses the importance of marriage stick with them? Will it be harder for relationship educators to recruit youth to participate in their programs?
  • Is it possible that young people are still very interested in healthy relationships, just not marriage? This is a possibility. And if so . . .
  • Should we put marriage more in the background, or do we need to do a better job of teaching the merits of strong marriages to youth? Should youth RE diminish direct content on marriage and focus on the more general and proximal outcome of healthy romantic relationships? Or, should we work to get better at communicating the personal value of marriage to youth? Should youth RE hold the banner of healthy marriage aloft or should it focus just on healthy relationships, in general? Will direct advocacy for the personal value of marriage backfire with many youth for whom it is not a strong personal desire?

Another noteworthy shifting trend that is a hot topic in the media these days is the rapid rise in serious mental health problems among teens. One researcher is calling this shift an “epidemic of anguish.”[iii] Dr. Jean Twenge recently described the findings from a report released by The National Survey on Drug Use and Health which surveyed 600,000 Americans to gauge just how big this problem truly is.[iv]

Here is what the survey found:

  • In just eight years, from 2009 to 2017, major depression doubled among young adults and rose almost 70% among teens.
  • During this same time period, anxiety and hopelessness also took a toubling leap, jumping 71% among young adults ages 18 to 25.
  • Suicide rates have also risen significantly, with more than double the number of young adults ages 22 to 23 taking their lives in 2017 compared to 2008.

While some have wondered if these increases might be due to a general increase in openness concerning mental health within society, Twenge insists that there is more at work here. Since these issues are predominately occurring in youth and young adults, she specifically blames the rise of social media and smartphones as the cause of the epidemic because the generation which she calls “iGen’s” is the heaviest user of this new technology. Other scholars think social media and smartphone use may play a role, but it is far from the only cause.[v] Regardless of the cause, there is little question that there has been a recent significant shift in mental health problems among youth and young adults.

These findings also spark important questions for relationship educators to consider:

  • Can youth RE act as a buffer? Might youth RE be able to help build the psychological resiliency our youth need? We know healthy relationships promote mental health. As we help youth to form and maintain healthy romantic relationships (and avoid unhealthy relationships), can this help counteract any negative effects that are impacting their mental health?
  • How might this change the curriculum we use in youth RE? Should youth RE give even more attention to individual mental health?

Given these big changes in trends of mental health and attitudes toward marriage, youth RE may be the most crucial part of the entire RE portfolio. There is a tremendous need for good relationship education among youth. We spoke to Marlene Pearson about these recent studies. Marlene has been teaching relationship literacy to disadvantaged youth and young adults for nearly four decades. We wanted her perspective of how youth RE could help. Her response?
The potential [of youth RE] is nothing short of a paradigm changer for a number of important goals: reducing risky sexual behaviors/pregnancy/STI prevention; boosting emotional, mental and social health; a restorative/healing potential for youth who’ve experienced trauma/adverse childhood experiences; and maybe our best bet for turning the tide of non-marital births and the disconnect between marriage and childbearing with the generation coming up.”

Big aspirations to go along with the big questions we’ve surfaced here. We need our best minds and hearts to help change the trajectory of these trobling trends for the benefit of our youth.

 

We would love to hear your responses to the questions we posed above. So we will open the comments function for this blog. Please feel free to share.

Endnotes:

[i] This tables comes from the forthcoming State of Our Unions: 2019 report. It is based on the “Monitoring the Future” survey collected by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

[ii] “Most U.S. teens see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (Feb 2019). https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/02/20/most-u-s-teens-see-anxiety-and-depression-as-a-major-problem-among-their-peers/

[iii] Twenge, J. (2019, March 18). The mental health crisis among America’s youth is real-and staggering. Retrieved from https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-mental-health-crisis-among-americas-youth-is-realand-staggering

[iv] “Most U.S. teens see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (Feb 2019). https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/02/20/most-u-s-teens-see-anxiety-and-depression-as-a-major-problem-among-their-peers/

[v] See McDaniel, B.T., Coyne, S.M. (2016). “Technoference”: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women’s personal and relational well-being, Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5, pp. 85-98, 10.1037/ppm0000065; Coyne, S. M., McDaniel, B. T., & Stockdale, L. A. (2017). “Do you dare to compare?” Associations between maternal social comparisons on social networking sites and parenting, mental health, and romantic relationship outcomes. Computers in Human Behavior, 70, 335–340. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.12.081