Anxiety Unplugged

By Pat Matuszak

Using smartphones

According to experts, the increasingly digital nature of both academia and everyday life may be contributing to the growing numbers of teens and young adults experiencing anxiety. “More than half of the college students who visited their campus counseling centers during the 2015-16 academic year reported symptoms of anxiety … This marks the seventh year in a row that anxiety has been the top complaint among students seeking mental health services,” reports Inside Higher Ed magazine.1

Experts investigating the anxiety surge have rounded up a group of its potential causes including bullying, the economy, parental pressure, tougher competition in school, the college admissions process and smartphones.That last element may sound a little out of place in the group, but it’s the only one that came along at the same time as the surge. So could a simple tech gadget lead to a mental health disorder? Or would it have the opposite effect and decrease teens’ anxiety, enabling them to call their parents or peers for support on demand?

In an article titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” Jean Twenge notes that smartphone users are actually becoming more isolated, rather than more connected. They more frequently interact with friends on their social profiles, instead of in the lunch room or at a teen hangout as past generations did. Some anxious teens are even choosing to opt out of lunch for the solitude of a quiet, supervised classroom. “The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently. … Fewer kids are spending time simply hanging out.”2

Without that hangout time, she says, teens are not learning how to cope with unexpected interactions and events. Social media is more scripted, allowing teens to construct a life through editing and filters. Real life seldom happens that way. This may explain why some teens are less likely to consider school or the mall or a sports event a “safe” place. Their idea of safe is becoming ever narrower, as they seek environments they can control, keeping them cocooned at home. Virtual life starts to sound more appealing than real life.

Anxiety has its useful side, as it’s a normal response to a dangerous situation. Our body chemistry floods adrenaline into the bloodstream to ramp up enough energy to fight a threat or flee from it. The problem develops when we don’t do either — We can’t fight or flee, so we fret. The threat isn’t resolved or avoided, so it hangs over us and festers in the background of our minds. We’re finding that today’s teens may be stuck in this situation even more often than adults. They are pressured to compete with other students under the intimidating vision of not entering or graduating from college, not getting a job and being able to support themselves or pay back college loans. Add new online social pressures to the already shaky self-image of teens and you have all the ingredients for a huge pot of stress ready to boil over. With smartphones constantly by their side, the pressure never ceases to continue checking in on their virtual ranking amongst peers.

In his New York Times article “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?,” Benoit Denizet-Lewis profiled a teen who was at the top of his class academically but “hit a wall” mentally and broke down because of this type of anxiety. Therapists worked to help this teen overcome anxiety by practicing fear-producing scenarios and challenging him to learn coping skills he could use in real-life situations.3

Experts agree that this type of cognitive therapy is the most effective. It deals with three sources of anxiety: outside voices that create pressure, the inner voice that internalizes negative messages and anxiety-producing life situations. Teens learn to talk back to anxiety through confronting internal and external voices with positive messages. They learn to cope with uncomfortable surroundings by using thinking tools to overcome fear of them. This remedy is proving especially effective for teens who have become so focused and accustomed to the virtual world that they didn’t learn the ins and outs of navigating the real world. Possible threats are diffused when they have been confronted intellectually in practice sessions.

Funny enough, the training teens undergo with peers in group therapy sessions sounds a lot like playground skills — the kind kids aren’t developing today due to less time playing with friends. It’s not surprising. Therapists suggest these skills would be learned earlier if teens simply spent time interacting with each other and uncomfortable scenarios naturally in green space instead of avoiding them in cyberspace.


Sources

1 Tate, Emily. “Anxiety On the Rise.” Insidehighered.com, March 29, 2017.

2 Twenge, Jean. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Theatlantic.com, September 2017.

3 Denizet-Lewis, Benoit. “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” October 15, 2017.

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