Declining Youth Mental Health May Be Driven by Increased Abuse and Bullying

New data from Sapian Labs finds that young people today report more abuse and bullying than past generations.


Young adults around the world are reporting three to five times more physical abuse, sexual abuse, and bullying than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations — and they’re struggling more mentally as a result.

Such are the results of a new report from Sapien Labs, which tracks mental health among internet-enabled populations around the world via its online Mental Health Quotient (MHQ). Based on the responses of 286,732 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed across 27 countries, Adult Mental Wellbeing after Abuse and Assault in Childhood also identified cyberbullying as a significant source of mental distress. All forms of childhood assault and abuse — physical, sexual, and online — were linked with worse mental-health outcomes than the death of a parent or sibling, the rates of which have declined over the years while the incidence of abuse increased.

In total, the results indicate that 31% of young adults experienced at least one such form of abuse or assault during their childhoods, compared with 12-14% of 45-64 year-olds and even smaller percentages, between 5% and 10% among older people.

In addition, the report states, “Global rates of in-person bullying were a soaring 19% while physical and sexual assault, as well as cyberbullying, were between 7 and 9% for the youngest adults. These rates are about double the rates experienced by adults aged 55 and older for physical and sexual abuse or assault, and 3-fold higher for in-person bullying,” pointing out that cyberbullying was nonexistent in the pre-internet childhoods of older generations.

Analyzing the data from different countries, the report identifies Brazil as having the highest rates of childhood abuse or assault of any type, followed by the “Core Anglosphere” of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia; the latter also showed the highest rates of cyberbullying.

Reporting of childhood sexual abuse specifically was highest in Latin American countries, with respondents from Honduras reporting the most. In general, both cyberbullying and sexual abuse and assault were lowest in the Middle East and North Africa, plus other African countries. Physical abuse and assault were highest in Saudi Arabia and lowest in Angola.

Adult Mental Wellbeing after Abuse and Assault in Childhood is the latest report from Sapien Labs, a nonprofit organization that runs the Mental Health Million Project and its annual Mental State of the World Report tracking mental wellbeing via the MHQ. In an interview with Mad in America regarding the 2022 Mental State of the World Report, Sapien founder and chief scientist Tara Thiagarajan discussed the impact of cultural and economic factors, also noting the introduction of the internet and smartphones as a hindrance on the “social self” and, subsequently, mental well-being.

Sapien’s latest report describes the MHQ survey as a “transdiagnostic assessment” incorporating symptoms of 10 disorders outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as well as elements from the Research Domain Criteria. It features 47 items graded by respondents on a nine-point “life impact scale”; in addition, the MHQ also collected data relating to “the demographic, life experience, lifestyle and situational profile including information on adversities and traumas.”

After answering roughly 15 minutes’ worth of questions, respondents are given a score, which can range from −100 to +200 along a spectrum of categories from “distressed” at one end to “thriving” at the other. According to the report, those suffering the fallout from childhood assault and abuse all fell within the “struggling” range, from -50 to 0.

The 18- to 24-year-olds who reported childhood experiences of sexual abuse or assault scored -12; those who reported physical abuse or assault scored -13; those who reported cyberbullying scored -6. By comparison, those who suffered the death of a parent or sibling during childhood scored 11, while those who reported no childhood trauma of any kind scored 50.

“The most common adult symptoms of those who experienced abuse in childhood were obsessive thoughts, feelings of sadness, distress or hopelessness, fear and anxiety, avoidance and withdrawal, and guilt and self-blame,” the report stated. Additional symptoms included problems with emotional control, suicidal thoughts, “detachment from reality” and cognitive symptoms such as slowed thinking and issues with concentration.

Even among younger adults reporting no trauma of any kind, their MHQ was lower than that of older generations — so an increase in the trauma itself can’t explain all of it.

Among the limitations acknowledged in the report are its focus on the internet-enabled world. It also acknowledges many unanswered questions, such as:

“Why is there such an increase in childhood abuse and assault with each younger generation? Is it that younger adults ascribe an expanded meaning to what constitutes sexual abuse or bullying relative to older generations? Does childhood abuse progressively fade from our memory as we age? Or, as a society, have we simply become more abusive to our young? It is perhaps a combination of all of these factors.”

It also asks why, according to the results, cyberbullying leaves a greater impact on young adults than physical bullying.

“This is perhaps telling of human nature – that the public shame of cyberbullying is far more impactful than the bullying itself. The lack of ability to erase the online trail of cyberbullying may compound its effect and cause it to reverberate longer in time, making it harder to overcome than the death of a family member. Given its significant impact, it calls for a multi-dimensional approach to better define cyberbullying, educate young people on appropriate online behavior, develop appropriate guardrails in online forums, and identify appropriate consequences that can be enforced.”

It concludes:

“Altogether, these findings demand deeper understanding and self-reflection. How have we, as a society, with all that we call progress, created a world that is increasingly more abusive and traumatic in childhood? What are the socio-cultural factors of modern society that drive it, and what can we do to reverse course? It is a sobering call to action.”




  1. Most children grow up in an “impoverished environment” related to the social structure of today’s society and modern family dynamics – leaving kids to be “alone together” on their tech devices. To fight alienation and boredom, drugs are provided as gateway solutions.

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    • Yes! The the social structure of today’s society and modern family dynamics are EXACTLY where “psychiatric problems” start. But psychiatry’s answer is to have the whole world drowning in “diagnoses” and drugs or endlessly spinning their wheels in diagnostic-infested “psychotherapy”.

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  2. “What are the socio-cultural factors of modern society that drive [abuse and bullying]…?”

    Let me take a wild guess…how about psychiatry!….you know, that marvelous bully-inspired invention that prescribes chemical dissociation instead of emotional integration…

    “….and what can we do to reverse its course?”

    First of all, QUIT making excuses by seeing people as “patients” instead of full human beings—be they children OR adults—which means DUMPING psychiatry and its endless list of invented “diagnoses”/“disorders” as soon as possible.

    It all starts with seeing people as doing the best they can in a sick society, NOT the other way around.

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    • I would add that kids are almost always the targets for bullying interventions in schools, but teachers and administrators most definitely engage in bullying behavior, often without consequence. I see kids referred for “behavioral problems” that originate with objecting to being mistreated by their teachers!

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      • Very true. It’s sad reality when children aren’t safe in the very places they need it the most: home and school.

        And a lot of doctors and “therapists” just continue the pattern of bullying and name-calling through “diagnosing” and labeling and call it “mental health”.

        It’s no wonder the kids are upset when there’s nowhere to turn.

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      • Because as I later found out I had sleep apnea throughout my life I was always spacing out, dozing off, etc. in classes. I was also quite disorganized, I’ve always found creating what might be called conventional order in my spaces challenging. And I’ve been hypervigilant throughout my life because of ongoing abuse at home. I’ve had teachers wait till I was asleep and then slam rulers on my desk; go into screaming fits about ‘not putting up with my shit’ and how clumsy and hopeless I was (happened once after I dropped a test tube, shot through with anxiety because of morning abuse and no sleep as usual); walk up to my desk and literally flip it over and begin screaming at me about how I don’t deserve the space if I can’t keep it organized — same teacher took me aside after that very class and explained to me that I’d come back years later to thank her for her treatment of me and the ‘lessons’ she was teaching me; the list goes on and on. When I got into middle school I kinda decided I wasn’t going to just take it any more. I was exhausted lying on my desk and spaced out from the apnea and hypervigilance and made the mistake of moving my arm in a direction that knocked over a posterboard. In front of the entire class the teacher spent about 5 minutes screaming at me calling me every name in the book and comparing me to the other students and telling me how shitty they must think I am. Then went back to teaching as if nothing happened. I sat there humiliated and devastated, then enraged — a new reaction to me as I entered my teenage year. So I gave her the finger covertly, but an aid saw me, whispered something to the teacher and I was whisked out of class to be lambasted by the assistant principal for my ‘behavior problems,’ suspended, and then sent home where my parents of course refused to hear anything of my side of the story, and told me I probably deserved the screaming and that my reaction was the problem.

        Bullying by other students was the least of my problems throughout school. It was almost always the adults doing the bullying, and their being protected by power and authority which = ‘right’ and ‘health’ was the most damaging part.

        Not that I wasn’t bullied by other students throughout my life for being a little shy because of my hypervigilance and out of it because of not sleeping at all. But even then, teachers and camp counselors were quicker to reprimand me for reacting negatively to bullying than to reprimand bullies for bullying. I remember being systematically bullied by kids at a sleep away camp, they formed a click that was largely united by their mutual joy for humiliating and degrading me, which I thought was probably because I was sensitive and vulnerable and didn’t fight back, as my parents taught me to absorb abuse so well. Well, the camp organizer was alerted that I was being bullied, so he came to pay me a visit, and he looked at me and said ‘what is it about you that you think would be annoying enough to make the other children pick on you?’ I thought that was the worst thing someone could say to me, till I went home and talked to my dad, who said ‘oh if you were being bullied you it was probably because you’re so annoying for some reason. One day I hope you find out why you’re so annoying to people.’ Turns out my Dad was a notorious bully throughout all of his childhood, physically degrading my aunt, and picking on kids so bad that they still wouldn’t talk to him in their 60’s. So I guess it makes sense that’d be his reaction.

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        • Dear Rasx,

          To me your whole comment is to be enshrined as holy is its beautiful honesty. I am sorry for you that you underwent such a longstanding grotesque lack of true care from all those who were supposed to support you. You were left abandonned, powerless, helpless and, as usual with all forms of bullying, creepily “blamed” for inviting such painful bruises.

          I have always felt that stategic, premeditated bullying is the biggest problem in our human world. Animals duff each other up in hissy fits but they do not think enough to come up with a cold measured plan to bully just for the mean sake of it. Only humans take bullying to a doomy level.
          In current times every group on the internet is heckling every other group with accusations of “unfairness”. Linguistics get dissected to root out damning evidence of “unfairness”. Online interrogations prise apart the very structures of sentences and casually tossed phrases to hold up proof of “unfairness”. We all get swept up in hunting out “the unfairness” that we think is marring our own lives. Nitpicking over other people’s expressive language seems to be the way we all feverishly do that.
          But this morning I jotted a note at breakfast. Here it is…
          “Fairness cannot be found in logical language…that is because fairness is a feeling”.
          The more that humans try to demand evidence of fairness in turning to a rather stilted and dead aparatus like language the more the search for a “feeling” of being “loved and respected” escapes them. This elusiveness of the promise of “fairness” then ricochets around online as “evidence” of “bullying”. Someone says something nonchalant and instantly it is seized upon by an online group as proof of that person being a bully….to which that person then gets mob bullied merely for coming out with one line or linguistically put opinion. This then causes a huge “fear” in someone of being wrongly perceived as being “unfair” in the words they accidently choose, or being perceived as such a bully for using slipshod modes of speech that they then get mass bullied in a witch hunt. This “fear” of being perceived as a bully by a population of thought monitoring bullies on the lookout for evidence of “unfairness” then creates a vast climate of fear. The problem with such a climate of fear is that it FEEDS more bullying. A bully is only a bully due to his or her fear and the sibsequents tentacles that spring out from that fear namely “anger” and “the impulse to control” entirely the someone who is deemed to be “unfair”, merely by their indifferent figure of speech…in language.

          Language will never ever provide the “fairness” that love-starving humans crave. Language is a poor substitute for the actual real presence of love. Would you rather marry a cold two dimensional linguistically perfect love letter or would you prefer to marry a warm huggable flawed imperfect but lovely real individual. Yet humans on the internet are en masse hunting for a “feeling” of love by scrutinizing each other’s words and not really substantially or lastingly finding it. So they nitpick to find the key expressions that seem “unfair” and they may then call those terms of phrase “bullying” and they may then rabble rouse an army to punish someone that they perceive as being withholding of “fairness” and “love”. This then sends out a clear message that if you do not kiss the boot of such language priests then you are correct to experience “fear” of saying anything…anything at all. This climate of fear over language raises “defensive” communication, as if you are already bullied into “explaining” what you innocently said. You are already being “controlled” and “threatened” that if you do not “say it nicely” you will be regarded as a bully and ostracized.

          This climate of suspiscion within the higher halls of language makes it doubly hard to just approach anyone as just a friend. A new friend may “want to know” who you are and what motivates you to like what you like and what makes you similar yet delightfully different. This “wanting to know” is innocuous. But there is another kind of “wanting to know” that comes over as the demand by language priests that you “explain” who you are and “explain” that your own expressions are not “unfair” or “bullying”. That second “wanting to know” is itself a form of bullying.

          A person may be reticent or even phobic about another person’s cherished belief. It is okay to feel rericent or phobic about “anything” in life….from hamsters to spiders to buttons to spooky shadows. Phobia is a word for “fear” and it is a feeling that we are all at liberty to choose inwardly. It is okay to be inwardly phobic but it is not okay to be outwardly bullying. The moment a feeling like fear launches outwardly as a behaviour it goes a step “beyond” being just an inner emotion we are all freely entilted to experience. But in this climate of the internet mobs of actual bullies scutinize peoples sentences for evidence of “feelings” that they are now not allowed to experience. Needless to say when any bunch of bullies in a school yard tells another kid that they are not allowed to “feel”, what is going on is scrutinization of expressions of language, being so policed to weed out “unfairness”, in the vain hope that this will linguistically “force fairness and love” to materialize, becomes a way of telling people to shut down feeling anything at all.
          A bully only gets to becoming a bully by having “no” access to his or her own inner “feelings”, to the numb extent that a bully cannot access a “feeling” of consideration or caring or compassion towards a potential victim. It is a “cycle”. A bunch of bullies silence a someone who merely “wants to know” them and who merely has that “curiosity” based on having access to their own curious “feelings”. Once that someone is forbidden from “wanting to know” or “be curious” or “feel” the messy “feelings” they do, for fear of being punished by language priests, then that someone grows a reduced ability to “feel” caring or “feel much of anything”. It then becomes all too easy for that someone to “become a bully” and become a different order of language priest, scrutinizing any scrutinizers for proof of “unfairness” and “flagrant bullying” in other peoples glib use of language.

          I reitterate that there are two versions of approaching a person with the wish to “know” more about them. One is a full feeling impulse of unafraid curiosity and excitement about wonderful difference. The other wish to “know” is coming from a language policing demand that the different ought to “explain” themselves in precise, logical language…or they get accused of being “loveless”. And even when they do offer an indication of their amazing differentness with a complete linguistic thesis to back them up, that thesis still is not and never will be love. The “feeling” of “fairness” is not found in language. Neither is the “feeling” of “love”. Silly humans like to think that it is…because language acts as a kind of protective cold steel sheild against the raw naked experience of real “fairness” and real “love”. Emotions so craved for that the silly human worries he or she will pass out if such radical healing is ever wholly felt.

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  3. Thanks Amy for this great article! You wrote:

    Among the limitations acknowledged in the report are its focus on the internet-enabled world. It also acknowledges many unanswered questions, such as:

    “Why is there such an increase in childhood abuse and assault with each younger generation? Is it that younger adults ascribe an expanded meaning to what constitutes sexual abuse or bullying relative to older generations? Does childhood abuse progressively fade from our memory as we age? Or, as a society, have we simply become more abusive to our young? It is perhaps a combination of all of these factors.”

    Research suggests the answer to the question, “Is it that younger adults ascribe an expanded meaning to what constitutes sexual abuse or bullying relative to older generations?’, is a clear “yes,” reflecting a phenomenon called “concept creep.” See here:

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    • I do get that. But most of that is in the context of “diagnosis.” I’ve heard lots of arguments about whether someone qualifies for a “PTSD diagnosis” based on whether or not their experience could really be called “traumatic.” I think this is very damaging. Traumatic experiences are at the discretion of the person feeling traumatized. Minimization is another act of discrimination that is unfortunately encouraged by the whole idea of dividing people into the “mentally ill” and the “sane,” which as we both know is not a scientifically valid distinction.

      That’s my take on it anyway. Everyone on Earth has experienced trauma of one sort or another. Who is to say that being abandoned temporarily by one’s parents at the age of 6 is more or less of a trauma than being sexually molested by the babysitter or being told day after day that you’re too stupid to succeed? Something is as traumatic as the effect it has on the person being affected. No one else is really in a position to judge.

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