Close to 40 per cent of young people aged 18 to 24 in the Middle East struggled with their mental health last year, a global study has found.
But it also said the surge in mobile phone and internet use meant people spend less time making human connections, a trend the study’s authors believe needs “immediate attention”.
Researchers polled 223,087 people in 34 countries with widespread internet access. The results were published by Sapien Labs, a US non-profit.
It measured mental health in people of all ages but found the global deterioration in the youngest adults to be of most concern.
“The results, quite honestly, surprised us,” said Tara Thiagarajan of Sapien Labs and Jennifer Newson, the lead scientist for the report.
“The reasons behind this decline are likely numerous and complex but add to the ongoing debate around the consequences of growing up in an internet-dominated and inequitable world.”
Among young adults, defined as those aged 18 to 24, polled, half in the Anglosphere – US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand – reported struggling or distress. The figure was 38 per cent for the Middle Eastern countries surveyed – Iraq, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen.
Statistics published in the report showed people spend an average of seven to 10 hours online per day, depending on the country.
“It is perhaps not the use of the mobile phone and internet per se that has been damaging but rather that it occupies such a large fraction of waking time that it crowds out time that previously would have been spent on the in-person social interactions that are required to build and maintain a strong social self,” the report said.
Among those aged 65 and over, nine per cent of people in the Middle East reported they were struggling or distressed.
In general, 30 per cent of those polled in the Anglosphere had mental wellbeing scores in this category compared with 23 per cent in the Middle East and 18 per cent in Europe.
Mental wellbeing increased with higher levels of education for all regions of the world. There was also a substantially greater mental wellbeing among those who were employed than in people who were unemployed or not able to work.
The mental health wellbeing gap between older and younger generations was more profound (30 per cent) than that of any other criterion studied, such as education, employment, location or sex, and the report said this warrants urgent attention.
This was exacerbated by Covid-19 and stands in “stark contrast to the happiness and wellbeing patterns documented prior to 2010 across several regions of the world, where young adults 18 to 24 typically had the highest wellbeing”.
School principals in the UAE said encouraging young pupils not to brush mental illness under the carpet was crucial.
“Be honest about how you’re feeling and seek help,” said Clare Turnbull, principal at The Royal Grammar School Guildford Dubai.
She said pupils needed to be taught to have the grit and determination to know what to do for themselves, to allow themselves to relax and regenerate.
Teachers must be “unashamedly determined to prioritise the emotional wellbeing of young people alongside their academic and social development and have that as a central aim”.
David Cook, headmaster at Repton Dubai, in Nad Al Sheba, said promoting positive mental health should be viewed in the same way as promoting positive physical health.
“Ten or 15 years ago, nobody really talked about the fact that mental health is as important as physical health. I think the first thing that schools and families and society need to do is say it’s OK to talk about it.”
He said schools needed to prepare young people to stand on their own feet.
“What we do in the 10 years before university is really important. And the question that schools are wrestling with is how do we actually promote positive mental health?” said Mr Cook.
“How do we teach young people it’s OK to fail at some things; or that life doesn’t always go well; or you don’t always get the job interview; [or] you don’t always feel great; [or you] don’t always get picked for the team.
“What we need to do is to make sure children understand that from really a young age, so that they know it’s OK to feel low or depressed.”