The relationship between teenagers and their parents, and perhaps more accurately, teenagers and the rest of the entire world, has always been contentious. As young people move through their teenage years they are changing dramatically physically and emotionally. While hormones are raging and bodies are morphing, teens also struggle to assert their independence and sort to their identity. They begin to recognize the realities of life and often get caught between their attachment to family and relationships with friends. In our STAR Leadership program, over the past few months, we've been focusing on positive self-image and living a life of excellence. Throughout conversations with our teens aged 13-18, several interesting, and sometimes troubling subjects have come to the forefront. Many teens comment on how much stress and anxiety they have in their life along with their close friends as well. They have often brought up the subject of anxiety, depression and even deep depression. As an educator and leader of this age group, it prompted me to dive deeper into the “why” of this phenomenon. What I found validated my concerns. In a Blue Cross Blue Shield Health of America Report for 2018, there was a reported 47% increase in diagnosed anxiety and depression in ages from 17-24 from 2013 to 2018. From ages 12-17, there was a 63% increase in diagnosed anxiety and depression, (47% for boys, 65% for girls). I was even more alarmed at stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reported a 77% increase in suicides in the age group 10-18 in the period from 2008-2018. Why? I was further troubled after having discussions with my own students, dance students who I have had for over 10 years in my program. These are high academic achievers, huge leaders in their schools and community. They were eager to talk about the issue and wanted someone to listen, perhaps because I wasn't a parent. To paraphrase a common response, these students often said “Many kids in our schools are depressed and have anxiety. It is very common, and kids of this generation are more depressed than you think.” "Wow", I thought. It was stunning and more than a bit concerning to hear this from young people.. Upon asking the reasons, the teens had a seemingly endless list. I broke the list down into three general categories.
- Today's teens are spread too thin. Teenagers have over-committed schedules with not enough time to concentrate on one thing. There can be self-generated pressure to fill and exceed through these busy schedules.
- There's a fear of not meeting expectations. Many teenagers in the group had brought up the pressure of not living up to expectations of parents, other adults and their peers. This amounts to the classic fear of failure and they mentioned over and over again how they were afraid to disappoint the people they are close to. .
- Pressures of social media to have the “perfect” life. Alright, so this was new, at least to me, and to be fair, I hadn't given it much thought from their perspective. It prompted me to dive even deeper, doing further research. I found a report from Jamison Monroe, CEO and founder of Newport Academy. It validates teens are intelligent, tech-savvy and have many positive assets as a generation of a social, digital and mobile world. However, social media is a primary source of anxiety and pressure for adolescents. Teens become particularly depressed when they compare their lives unfavorably to the people they follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Not just neighbors and schoolmates or what we would call “peers”, but any and everyone on social media. Those are unreasonable expectations.
Monroe's report discussed how scientists have also found correlations between teen smartphone use and depression. It demonstrates how excessive use of technology damages relationships, education, and extracurricular activities. It also reaches other reasonable conclusions:
- Many teens experience some degree of academic pressure. In addition, an uncertain economy and tough competition for college and graduate school make that pressure even worse.
- Teens, of course, typically experience their first romantic relationships in high school or college. While this is an essential part of teen development, teen relationships can also be emotionally challenging.
- Today’s teens have fewer coping skills. Parents try to shield them from experiencing failure and disappointment. That means they often have fewer opportunities to build resilience. They frequently don't know how to pick themselves up and dust themselves off. Thus, they don’t learn how to cope with challenges.
- The adolescent brain is still growing. Hence, teens have an immature prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls self-regulation. Many decisions they seem to make are not real decisions they have made at all. They have a limited ability to exert control over their impulses. Consequently, this leads to teenage risk behaviors, such as substance abuse and unsafe sexual choices.
- Today’s adolescents spend so much time on screens that they don’t get outside enough. This subjects them to “nature deficit disorder” a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods”. Because teens and children are spending less time outdoors, they experience a wide range of behavioral and mental health problems.
It was becoming apparent to me that while today's teens have the challenges of the past generations, they are less capable of coping. They also have the additional challenges of social media that has not been a factor previously. Add in school shootings, heightened ecological fears, increased political uncertainty, social injustice, and other factors, and I was getting a clearer and clearer picture.
Today's teenagers are under more pressure than ever and are less equipped to handle those pressures. The result? Frequently high anxiety and deep depression.
So, what can we do as parents, educators, and people of previous generations to combat this rise of depression in our teens? What should we be doing to help them through this critical period of their lives? I was able to break it down into three critical components.
- Create awareness and a framework to cope. Talking with family members, your team or faculty, and teens themselves to let them know this is a rising issue. Help them understand how to set structure around the feelings they are experiencing. (I developed a leadership curriculum program I use with my teens called Taking Shape STAR Leadership program where we discuss several current issues that teens face such as positive self image, bullying, ect).
- Set up guidelines and limits to social media usage. A CNN study of 13-year-olds and their relationship with social media found that participants who checked Instagram or other networking sites between 50 and 100 times a day were 37% more distressed than those who checked just a few times a day. Those who checked more than 100 times a day were 47% more distressed on average. The more checking, the more stress. I have a no cell phone policy at our studio. Teens come in and check phones in a basket on arrival and pick up at end of the day. This allows them to establish better personal relationships and talk among friends, problem solve and have fun!
- Limit overextended schedules, taking time for mindfulness and reflection. Have kids take an audit of all of their schedule. What do they really “love” to do and what are they doing that can be taken off their plates. My students now yearn for “yoga” class where they can get their mind off the grid. There's been an interesting trend in “mindfulness” classes in the school system in the past 3 years. This is telling us kids need to slow down.
I feel it is our purpose as leaders of this generation to find ways to establish these relationships with our teens. They don’t need information from us, they can get this in seconds on their devices. What they need is caring, listening ears, the experience of generations that have “been there, done that” to help them strengthen values of resilience, discipline, and building relationships.
We also need something too. We need to understand that things are in fact, different for this generation of teens. They grew up differently. They have almost unlimited access to technology and are more connected than ever. They are exposed to more real dangers in their young lives.
I have always felt these kids are worth the effort. It's why I've made them such a significant part of my daily life and career. If we can better understand these teens, we can better help them. That is a goal worth pursuing.