Music and the Mental Health of Adolescents
Updated: Jun 7, 2021
By Alyssa Melton
(Note: All the song files are located here ) Go to the song files and listen to the music according with the number marked e.g (1) or [A].
Music is everywhere, from the radio on the ride to school to the jingles between YouTube videos to that song your friend keeps saying you just “HAVE to listen to.” What many don’t often think about, however, is that a song, as it is some words and notes in a two-minute package, can be as healing as it is wounding. Thomas Jefferson said it best: The power of a sword is wielded in words, be it used for the better or the worse. While music can help establish a sense of self, community, and aid in overcoming emotional and physical strife, music mishandled is an underrated danger to the mental health of adolescents because it can be used as a total escape from life, it can exacerbate existing mental health conditions, and certain genres normalize and sometimes encourage destructive behavior. But first, the positive effects of music as a whole must be considered.
Music prompts self-understanding and builds communities. Naturally, people form bonds with others who are engaged in the same activities or generally like the same things; music provides an instrument through which both things can occur. Think of that song your friend showed you way back when on the school bus (when that was a thing), turning you on to a whole new genre of music. Think of the hundreds of song recommendations ping-ponged between you and another over text. Think of that concert you attended with your friend group before COVID-19. For everyone, there are those songs that just take them back... I remember being at a sleepover in the 6th grade when my friend showed me a single song by TØP; the four-year phase had thus begun. But I also had a connecting point with that friend and a way to relate to many others going through the same stuff that I was at the time. Speaking from personal experience, music offers lots of ways to understand oneself and to bond with other people, which are only glimpses of its benefits it offers; there is more yet.
Music gives people a coping mechanism for negative feelings. Everyone goes through hard times, for sure. And many have looked to music for a possible source of relief. Although it would seem counterintuitive, sad people tend to feel better after listening to sad music. Studies involving thousands of participants report that sad music actually helps people really normalize, accept, and overcome their unpleasant emotions instead of worsening (1) . So, to the average person, a sad song can actually be helpful in the healing process. Additionally, another study found that music provides an almost medicinal sense of comfort and relief in physically painful settings. At the Mayo Clinic, for instance, people undergoing heart surgeries must listen to music throughout their time at the hospital; the music actually “helps ease pain and anxiety and blocks out distracting or disturbing hospital sounds” (2). Clearly, be it with emotional or physical discomfort, music is a tool to combat both. Undoubtedly, music has its benefits, it also can cause major harm in ways that are almost too familiar to be considered serious among young listeners.
Music can be used as a way to drown out life. Sure, a lot of people have moments (or days) where the only thing they really want to do is zone out to a good song...or album...or playlist. Indeed, music can be medicinal when used as a brief “out”. But the truth is, when these effortless “outs” become full on episodes, some negative outcomes begin to surface. A sample of teenagers was given phones and monitored for what they were doing at any given moment; on average, the “teenagers...listened to music 9 percent of the time[; t]hose who listened to lots of music were 8 times more likely to be depressed than those who didn't listen very much” (3). Evidently, music occupies much of the average teenager’s time—almost a tenth of their waking hours—; those who spent more time than that were the ones eight times more likely to be depressed. While it is not necessarily cause-and-effect, there is definitely a correlation between lots of time spent listening to music and depression among teens, a connection worth noting when looking deeper into the other negative implications of music in light of the danger it can be to adolescents.
Music is capable of exacerbating negative mental health conditions. Listening to music as a means of overcoming difficult feelings, as previously mentioned, can be beneficial to the average person; for people who are affected with depression, however, this is not so. Dr. Suvi Saarikallio, involved in a music-mood regulation experiment, says that, for people with depression, “[t]his style of listening…[does] not necessarily improv[e] the negative mood” (4). For people affected by depression, there is no benefit from listening to sad music as a means to cope. Worse, when exposed to sad music, the effects of depression can be inflamed. A chart from a study exploring musical prescriptions for mood improvements shows that depressed people (or/and “ruminators,” those with tendencies toward negative thought patterns,) who listen to sad music self-rate themselves as feeling more depressed afterward—as well as having reduced cognitive function (1). Depression is a condition; music does not provide people affected by it with the same benefits as those without the illness; it instead makes them worse off. And the troubling thing is that many adolescents have undiagnosed depression. Therefore, music, although certainly a tool to young people in some regards, is a peril in others when used in the wrong context. And there is more danger yet emerging from music that is even more prevalent to adolescents—yet no more regarded with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.
Music normalizes and frequently encourages behaviors destructive to the young listener. Most people have heard the jabbering about modern music being a bad influence on teens. True, the parental nagging (and having to listen to certain music in secret) can be annoying at times; it is easy to say, “It won’t happen to me!”, but, with no teen being any less susceptible than others, the evidence points in other directions. Let’s take substance abuse, for instance. One needs not look far to find a song that “coolifies” drug use in some way or another; in the past couple of decades, the prevalence of drug-related lyrics has indeed climbed. In 1980, one per-cent of all songs produced had lyrics referencing drugs in some way; in 2018, that figure rose to six (5). While the morality of teens using is debatable, the outcomes thereof are not. From 1999 to 2019, the number of overdose deaths among Americans aged fifteen to twenty-four has jumped 285 per-cent. (6) Clearly, there is a strong correlation between the prevalence of drugs in song lyrics with the incidents of adolescent deaths caused by drug misuse, an indicator that the influence of certain music can indeed encourage such behavior and wreak havoc on its listeners. With its potentially perilous effects in mind, music should be approached with caution by the teenagers consuming it.
Music is undoubtedly one of life’s generous gifts to the young people of the world; it helps them understand and develop themselves, form relationships with others, and it provides a means to express and sort through negative feelings. While these things are true, the dangers music poses to the same demographic cannot be ignored: It can be overused as a means to drown out other aspects of life, it can worsen mental conditions like depression, and it plays a major role in the surge of destructive behaviors among teenagers. True, it can be hard to hit pause on a catchy song—why do all the good ones seem to have bad lyrics? But regardless, it is due time to unplug and be more deliberate about what we are letting into our ears and our minds, noticing how it might be afflicting our mental states and behaviors.
(1) Sandra Garrido NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Development Fellow. “Sad Music and Depression: Does It Help?” The Conversation, The Conversation US, Inc., 3 Sept. 2020, theconversation.com/sad-music-and-depression-does-it-help-66123, 15 May 2021.
(2) Harvard Health Letter. Harvard Health Publications, Nov. 2009 (Reviewed and updated March 25, 2015), hms.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/assets/Sites/Longwood_Seminars/Longwood%20Seminar%20Music%20Reading%20Pack.pdf, 15 May 2021.
(3) Shute, Nancy. “What Comes First: Depression In Teens Or Emo Music?” NPR, NPR, 6 Apr. 2011, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2011/04/06/135151133/what-comes-first-depression-in-teens-or-emo-music, 15 May 2021.
(4) “Mental Health Linked To Music Listening Habits.” Science 2.0, Science 2.0, 25 Oct. 2015, www.science20.com/news_articles/mental_health_linked_to_music_listening_habits-158250, 15 May 2021.
(5) McDonald, Trevor. “Does the Music Industry Promote Drug Use? - Youth Incorporated.” Youth Incorporated Magazine, Youth Incorporated Magazine, 1 Feb. 2018, youthincmag.com/music-industry-promote-drug-use, 15 May 2021.
(6) Bustamante, Jaleesa. “Drug Use Among Youth: Facts & Statistics.” NCDAS, National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 2019, drugabusestatistics.org/teen-drug-use/, 15 May 2021.