The Pew Research Center (PRC) recently conducted a survey of teens ages 13-17 inquiring as to what they viewed as life problems in their own personal lives and/or the lives of their friends. Seven out of ten teens (70%) stated that teen anxiety and teen depression where major life problems with 26% stating that teen anxiety and teen depression where minor life problems. That is a combined 96% reporting that teen anxiety and teen depression are problems they encounter (Only 4% stated that they did not see teen anxiety and teen depression as a problem).
The number of teens who are experiencing teen anxiety and teen depression has been steadily on the rise since 2007. Though research has not been able to draw conclusions on what is causing this trend, there is enough information out there for us to draw some correlations.
The Rise of the Smartphone
Face to face social interaction has been shown to have a direct impact on mental health. To make eye contact, to laugh together, cry together, hugs and other physical contact aids in development of healthy mood and emotion. For example, breaking up with a girl/boy friend creates a high level of teen anxiety. Prior to smart phones, this typically had to happen in person or at least, talking over the phone. Though it is extremely uncomfortable to do so, it teaches our teens how to manage the anticipatory anxiety in thinking about breaking up, the anxiety during the act of breaking up, and experience the decrease and eventual elimination of the anxiety after the fact.
In today’s world, teens can break up through texting or simply ‘ghosting’ the individual and avoiding the anxiety all together. Think of it like exercising a muscle. The more face to face social interaction teens have the stronger their ability to manage uncomfortable emotions. The less face to face time the weaker the emotional regulation muscle.
With social media, the pressure to be ‘liked’ or 'fit in' is even higher than in-person socializing. The need to post the right content, the right picture, the number of times the content is written, deleted, written again and/or the number of times to get just the right picture is stressful and anxiety producing in itself. However, this is what is required to get ‘friends’ or ‘likes’ on social media, which teens can perceive as an indicator of their worth and value as a person.
Academic & Extracurricular Pressures
Out of the pressures teens face today that may contribute to teen anxiety and/or teen depression, academic pressures are at the top of the list. Sixty-one percent (61%) of teens report that the pressure to get good grades is high while another 27% say they feel some pressure to get good grades. The pressure to get good grades is also partly tied into the teen and family’s post-graduation goals: what college can I get into?
In Katy, our schools are among some of the best in the state, and in fact, in the nation. It is common knowledge that in Katy, in order to get into a ‘good’ college, you have to be among the top 10% of your class. In a school system where earning a 4.20 GPA is possible (what happened to the 4.00?), the pressure to enroll in AP and honors courses - and excel in these courses - is high. Even with a high GPA, our gifted teens still have the SAT score to contend with. On top of studies and homework, we find some teens spending time in SAT prep to ensure they can score in the percentile needed to get into a ‘good’ college (just writing this is making me anxious!).
If that wasn’t stressful enough, what else do our teens take on? How many teens are also in extracurricular activities like sports, music lessons, voice lessons, volunteering, working a part-time job, Scouting, church, etc. It’s not unheard for teens in today’s world to spend 40, 50 even 60 hours a week in school and extracurricular activities. It’s no wonder that the teens of today report being as stressed as adults.
Another factor that may play a part is that coveted and valuable time allotment we spend, or in this case, don't spend with our teens. In the Pew Research Center survey, 45% of parents report that they spend too little time with their teens. It's difficult to truly know and understand what is going on in our teen's life, how they are handling the pressures of life, and what impact, if any, the pressures are having on their mood and emotions if we aren't going out of our way to spend quality time with our teens.
What can be Done: Balancing Healthy Electronics Use
We’ve heard ‘too much of a good thing is harmful’ and that we should ‘do all things in moderation’. This also includes the use of electronics. As parents, it's important that we place collaborative limits for healthy electronic use:
One simple (I didn’t say easy) step is to discuss with and involve your teen on limits on the use of the electronics. For example, ensuring that all smart phone/electronics use ends at 9:00 p.m. (pick a time) each night AND that the phones and electronics are not charged in their rooms but in a common area. I find that involving the teen in that decision making, though they may not be happy in the beginning in setting screen time limits, will result in increased adherence to what was agreed upon and appreciation for involving them in the process. It also teaches them the skills of problem solving, negotiation, and compromise.
With your teen, work to designate a day, days of the week, or even a week each month, as periods of times where electronics use (maybe except for the TV) is off limits. If a day or more seems too much in the beginning, start with periods of time during the day, say a two hour stretch on certain days where electronics are not used.
What Can be Done: Academics and Extracurricular Activities
As parents, one of our responsibilities is to ensure our children are provided an education. We desire our teens to be wildly successful and understand grades are an important element. Some food for thought:
Talk with your teen about the pressures they feel around grades and extracurricular activities. Just remember, your gifted teen may not want to disappoint you and may tell you what they think you want to hear, particularly if they know that seeing them get into a certain colleges is a high priority for you. Show them how much you really want to know how they are doing by just listening and respond with, 'tell me more'. You may be tempted to re-remind them of how important grades are but this is not the purpose of this conversation. The goal of this activity is to hear your teens perspective and really ascertain their stress level and emotional health.
If the grades are the priority do we need to involve them in so many extracurricular activities? I know the Jones’ have their teen in so many activities and their teen seems to be doing just fine. Remember, you’re the Smiths’ not the Jones’ and each family experience is different. Besides, what do we know of how the Jones’ feel on the inside? People can be pretty good at hiding anxiety and depression around others, including the Jones'.
What Can be Done: Parent-Teen Time
Teens, at times, will resist with all their effort spending time with their parents. That’s okay, it’s a normal and natural developmental stage for our teens. However, at their core, this is what your teen not only really needs, but also craves. Below are some suggestions to increase parent-teen time. Remember, sometimes it’s not about the quantity of time but the quality of the time spent together.
Set aside the same day each week where your family can step away from the outside world and take an hour (1 hour) playing a game with each other, going for a bike ride, cooking or baking, some simple but fun activity that you can engage in with your teens. There are 168 hours in each week. One hour a week is 0.0059% of the hours in the week. I think it's doable. Your teen may protest and not want to initially participate but if you make it a priority and do this each week, you will add one more protective factor against your teen experiencing life impacting anxiety and depression.
If you have a job that requires a high number of office hours, some employers may let you work from home a day or so each week. As you will be working, it’s not the same quality time you would be spending with your teen outside of work however, it is time where you will be home and having micro-interactions with your teen and family. What a cool message that is to your teen that as you want to see and be with them more, you have opted to work from home from time to time.
Being a parent with today’s teens can be tricky. It’s a difficult task to determine how much screen time is too much screen time, how much pressure is too much/not enough when it comes to academics and extracurricular activities, and how can I spend time with my teen in ways that will be meaningful for them and for the family.
Begin Teen Therapy & Family Counseling in Katy, Texas Today
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About the Author
Jason Drake is a Licensed Clinical Worker. He is a Specialist in Teen Therapy & Family Counseling. He has provided therapy to teens and families since 2003. Through his expertise, he helps teens who struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, ADHD/ADD, and PTSD. He works with talented teen athletes who have experience mental blocks. Gifted students have unique challenges that Jason understands well. Jason uses CBT, EMDR, Neurofeedback, FFT, and Motivational Interviewing. We only work with teens and families which allows us to focus on what teens and families of today need. Resolving the struggles of today can assure a more successful tomorrow. Proudly serving Katy, Tx and Houston.