Exploring anxiety and social change

Sociology professor Jason Schnittker teaches the course Anxious Times: Social Change and Fear, based on a book he wrote. Through a data-sensitive approach, students study anxiety and mental health.

Jason Schnittker teaches class.
Sociology professor Jason Schnittker’s class poses the question, “What does it mean to say we’re in an ‘age of anxiety’ and not something else?”

As a medical sociologist, Jason Schnittker was struck by a shift he saw in the language around mental illness. The University of Pennsylvania sociology professor says he had the impression that people were expressing mental distress in terms of anxiety more than they had in the past and had a sense that we are living in an “age of anxiety.”

Schnittker wanted to see if his impressions were real and reflected in the data. He became interested in the question, “Why anxiety, not depression?” and grew concerned about scientific literature not respecting the difference. He wondered why the literature discussed an “age of depression” not so long ago and what has really changed. He also wondered whether increasing rates of anxiety in young people were due to their age, this moment in time, or something about their birth cohort; he found evidence suggesting a cohort effect, meaning a change affecting people born at a certain time.

These questions led first to his 2021 book, “Unnerved: Anxiety, Social Change, and the Transformation of Modern Mental Health,” and then to developing the course Anxious Times: Social Change and Fear.

His syllabus poses the questions, “What does it mean to say we’re in an ‘age of anxiety’ and not something else? Are we now, in fact, in such an age? And if so, how has society changed in ways that have made us more anxious?”

This fall is the third time he is teaching the class but the first time it is being offered as a general class rather than a first-year seminar. Schnittker says he likes that the course focuses on the impacts of mental unwellness and how societal change leaves a mark on cohorts.

“It’s fun to teach because it’s a room of 18- to-22-year-olds, approximately, so they’re all young people,” he says. “They think in terms of generations; they’re thinking of themselves as a cohort, and so I’m trying to teach to their experience but also broaden it out and teach to the cohorts that preceded them.”

Some of his book, which students read throughout the semester, details multiple changes and trends during the past 50 years: divorce rates, birth rates, socioeconomic status, experiences of childhood adversity, religious participation.

“Your social environment shapes anxiety before depression, and so, if the social environment changes, the first expression of that distress is more likely to be in anxiety than depression. The task of the book is to show that’s true and to show what’s really changed over the last 100 years or so,” Schnittker says. He also notes that, even if someone never experiences an anxiety disorder in their life, they are much more likely to experience at least one of the main symptoms of an anxiety disorder than a mood disorder, like depression.

His course also touches on gender and racial/ethnic differences in anxiety. Schnittker says women “have a considerably elevated risk of anxiety disorders and mood disorders” but that, while racial minorities experience a lot of stress, they report a lower prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders. The class also talks about social relationships and anxiety, stigma around mental illness, and mental health care in the United States.

Second-year biology major Arthur Li, from Charlottesville, Virginia, says he was passionate about the topic of anxiety in high school and coming into this year. Attending a boarding school with a rigorous academic workload and serving on student council, he saw the impacts of anxiety.

Jade Nguyen, a psychology major with a sociology minor, says she was drawn to the class by an interest in anxiety and psychiatric disorders. Some elements of the course that struck her were discussions of religion and anxiety—religious people tend to be less anxious—and reading about historical interpretations of anxiety, many of which are now viewed as outdated.

Nguyen, a fourth-year student from Chicago, says she didn’t realize how much society has undermined anxiety due to a focus on depression. She adds that, while anxiety has become normalized, there is still a long way to go in taking mental disorders seriously and differentiating them.

The nuances of social media

People are tempted to pin the rise in anxiety on social media, but “there’s been a whole bunch of other social changes in the family, the economy, and the rise of inequality that predate Instagram,” Schnittker says. Beyond that, he notes that, while there are many claims that social media is bad for your mental health, “we don’t have very good quasi-experimental evidence that it’s strong in one direction or another.”

It’s a topic for one week of the course, and it’s a good example of Schnittker’s data-intensive approach, focusing heavily on studies and survey reports. One day, he talked about a study on anxiety language in tweets after the false missile alert in Hawaii in 2018, a longitudinal panel study on Facebook activity and mental health, and a self-report study of 125 students showing that fatigue and loneliness predict passive social media use—meaning browsing without interacting—but passive social media use does not predict depressive symptoms.

“We spend a lot of time in this class talking about how to measure anxiety, how to measure depression, the strengths in that, and the limitations in that,” Schnittker says. “That is very much a social science question. If we’re going to categorize psychiatric disorders, we usually employ the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.’ Is that adequate? Am I capturing anxiety accurately across groups?”

There is evidence for both an effect of social media use on satisfaction and an effect of satisfaction on social media use, Schnittker says. For example, someone’s relationship with their family can affect social media use and vice versa. But much of the academic research is on Facebook, which is not the platform of choice for current college students.

Cat Grogan, an exchange student from Trinity College Dublin, was struck by some of the differences in how she sees American college students using social media—such as Instagram—compared to those in Ireland. Grogan, who is in her school’s Philosophy, Political Science, Economics, and Sociology program, sees people in the U.S. taking social media more seriously, such as by being more committed to always commenting on friends’ posts.

In Schnittker’s class, Grogan says, she has been interested in learning about distinctions between anxiety and depression and about the connection between family and economic trends with trends in anxiety.

“Like most things in social science, it’s going to be a mixture of things,” she says of factors contributing to increased anxiety. Grogan says she likes that the course builds on her personal interest in an empirical way, noting, “You see things in the data, the evidence, and the research that can relate to your own experience and can be validating.”

Asked about what Schnittker has learned from his students, he talks about how they have pushed back on certain interpretations of social media use, “casting their use of social media in a very sophisticated way.

“They weren’t in a position where they were going to make social media use an anxiety-provoking experience. They were going to use these tools only in ways that were useful to them,” Schnittker says. While anxiety is a very real issue, “people can be wise—sometimes implicitly—to the things that will make them better, and that’s an important aspect.”