"So long as Mistress Mary's mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored, and wretched child."
This quote sounds like a qualitative statement from one of the 11 million iGeneration teens studied by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge. In truth, it is a description of Mary Lennox, the main character of Francis Hodgson Burnett's classic fictional novel, The Secret Garden (1911). Published over 100 years ago, The Secret Garden offers fundamental antidotes for the rising legions of depressed, modern-day, internet-addled teens.
Professor Twenge's article "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" describes several trends that shattered decades of norms regarding young folks' social interaction and mental health. Her research reveals a sharp increase in teen depression, loneliness and suicide, along with corresponding decreases in car-driving, dating and time spent outside of the house. These profound shifts occurred around 2012, the first year that more than 50 percent of Americans owned a smartphone. The data strongly suggests that smartphones are the cause of sharp changes in adolescent socialization and depression.
These depressed young folks have a lot in common with Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, the two sour principals of The Secret Garden. Both children are more or less abandoned by their affluent parents. Mary's parents die during a cholera outbreak in India, and she is passed off to Colin's father, the aloof master of 100-room estate in Yorkshire, England. Loneliness and privilege create a nasty disposition in both Mary and Colin. They are self-absorbed children who are unable to do anything for themselves. At first, Mary cannot even dress herself and Colin never rises from bed, convinced that he is an invalid. As The Secret Garden unfolds, though, several fundamental changes completely transform the children both physically and mentally.
Intimacy with nature creates the first change. Out of sheer boredom, Mary Lennox walks along the stark Yorkshire moor and discovers new life—a trove of flowers, animals and fundamental interconnections. A robin is curious about Mary, befriends her, and leads her to a secret garden and "after a few days spent almost entirely out of doors, she wakened one morning to what it was to be hungry … and did not glance disdainfully at her porridge."
Most comprehend the deep physical impacts of song and soil, yet modern teens often trade this wonder for more online time.
Once Mary discovers the secret garden, she moves to free tangled roses and choked shoots. Intimacy with nature spurs cultivation. She encourages the growth of other living things, removing obstacles, promoting "the other" rather than self-absorption. Her cultivation creates a new mindset and relationship with the world, and builds a powerful, fulfilling mood.
Cultivation often requires extended concentration, long periods in "the zone," a "flow" which proves satisfying to Mary, as days quickly pass in the garden. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "flow" is a nourishing state of satisfaction, another strong antidepressant, unlike smartphones that continually undermine extended concentration.
True friendship is another fundamental antidote to the smartphone malaise. Mary befriends a neighborhood boy named Dickon who helps to clear weeds and restore flower beds. Working together ushers an unspoken, joyous bond between the children. Mary notes that Dickon "is always talking about live things. He's always looking up in the sky to watch birds flying, or looking down at the earth to see something growing. And he laughs a big laugh." Dickon, a peasant boy, proves to be a true friend in Mary's small group. Their intimacy, blind to social class differences, contrasts greatly to Facebook, where "friends" are mostly acquaintances and stratification is amplified by algorithm within a virtual feedback loop.
Mary also cultivates a true friendship with Colin, who in turn becomes curious about the garden, a motivation to leave his sickbed. A special kinship grows when Colin honors Mary's trust and savors their secret, a haven from Misselthwaite Manor. The secret garden is a respite, a magical space where the adolescents make their own choices and live with consequences, physically outside a tide of overwhelming scrutiny.
Magic is a central theme of The Secret Garden, and magic can curb contemporary teen depression like it eased author Mary Hodgson Burnet's mental illness over a century ago. In the early 1900s, experts prescribed "the rest cure" for Burnett's depression. She wrote and socialized instead. The Secret Garden articulates her rebellious antithesis: Intimacy with nature, cultivation, true friendship, real time with real people, flow, bird songs, and secret havens lead all characters to "magic"—a doxology, an interconnection, a genuine bond between living things—an experience unlike surfing a smartphone. Where does the modern-day teen discover such joy?
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over 15 years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This column examines current events through the lens of quality literature.