Being a teenager has always come with a healthy dose of angst, self-doubt and feeling misunderstood. Ask any parent about their teen’s current mental state these days, however, and you may be able to sense a shift from even five years ago. Anxiety in teens is at an all-time high.
This isn’t your classic "Breakfast Club" type of teen anxiety, either. This is anxiety that is keeping kids home from school, and driving them to self-harm or even suicidal ideation. And the consensus, in both the medical community and the parents observing their kids, is that social media is a major contributing factor.
More and more research studies are pointing to a link between social media use and anxiety in adolescents. The most recent statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health show that more than 25 percent of children between 13-18 years old experience anxiety and 5.9 percent have what would be considered a “severe” disorder.
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A brief survey of clinical psychologists and social workers confirms that they have noticed an uptick in the number of adolescents coming in for treatment of anxiety-related issues. “What I have seen in my practice with adolescents is an increase in social comparisons and negative self talk,” says social worker Cara Maksimow, L.S.C.W., C.P.C. “Relationships and friendships have become more superficial with communication being sterile and through social media. Kids with hundreds or even thousands of ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ are actually isolated and spend very little time with others, which can create a sense of emptiness that drives more social media activity and it becomes a vicious cycle.”
Mother Melissa Morritt Coble agrees. “They are comparing someone else’s public face to their private one and they cannot seem to tell the difference,” she says. “Even when they know that they fake stuff for Instagram or Snapchat, they seem to think that everyone else is having this grand and glorious life, and they don’t make the connection that they are just faking it too.”
The constant comparing with peers isn’t the only source of teens’ anxiety, though. With their total immersion in social media, kids have less control over what they’re seeing of the 24-hour news cycle. Ten years ago, the majority of news stories needed to be sought out: You had to turn on the TV or radio, or go to a website like CNN to find out that a shooting or terrorist attack had taken place. Now, even if you’re not paying attention to the “trending” sidebar on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll likely be exposed to someone’s “share” of a news story within a few moments of scrolling through your newsfeed — regardless of who your friends are and whether you want to see it.
This constant influx of terrible news is overwhelming for everyone. How many adult friends do you know who take social media breaks? Adults understand that we need to disconnect from technology and social networks to regain our equilibrium, but adolescents haven’t gained that wisdom. Executive function — the part of the brain that governs compulsive behavior and self-control, among other things — is still in development until early adulthood. The result is an inability for teens to detach themselves from social media for the benefit of their mental health.
Clinical psychologist and founder of the Digital Citizen Academy, Dr. Lisa Strohman, J.D., Ph.D., says this connection creates an action item for parents and caregivers. “Anxiety and depression have a lot to do with social networks,” she says. “These sites are designed to create this dichotomous life. They’re one person in real life and they act a different way online. We need to teach them to integrate the two and understand that they’re connected.”
Another challenging element of social media is the permanence of social media posts, which can lead to more episodes of bullying. “I feel awful for kids these days,” says mother of three, Tobi Doyle. “We did stupid [things] all the time but it wasn’t documented. Now, you vent to a friend and it gets screenshotted [sic] and the next thing you know, your vent has become a reason for everyone to be angry at you.”
The consequences of social media bullying can be deadly. The suicide rate in girls aged 10-14 has increased 200 percent in the past 10 years, and in boys of the same age, the rate has increased by 50 percent. While it's hard to pin-point the cause of this rise, and it's likely due to a combination of factors, the increased anxiety teens feel when they use social media paints a grim picture.
Information is one thing. But what can we, as parents and health practitioners, do? The statistics are frightening, and we’re not going to be able to take away our kids’ devices any time soon. Technology and social media are here to stay, and they aren’t just a negative in our kids’ lives.
Don't give up: There’s hope, Strohman says.
Kids are smarter than we give them credit for, and if we can teach them the true costs of spending so much time on social media, and what these sites are actually after — our personal habits, likes, dislikes and spending patterns, so they can aim the right advertisers at us — then they are more likely to reduce their time on social media and learn to connect in real life.
Just like you don’t let your kids eat nothing but cookies and chips, instilling healthy social media habits has become an important part of modern parenting. And while there are no guarantees, maintaining a healthy relationship with social media may help your teen avoid becoming a statistic in the anxiety epidemic.