Tension and stress are normal parts of life. They push you forward, drive you toward your goals, and help you to achieve greatness. But what happens when stress gets out of control? It turns to anxiety—a potentially debilitating condition that can cause severe impairment in serious cases.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. According to a 2001–2004 study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), a third of all adolescents in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder. (1)
That was back in 2004, before smartphones, before tablets, and before the internet was placed in the hands of every teen out there. According to data collected by the National Survey of Children’s Health, there was a 20 percent increase in diagnoses of anxiety disorders from 2007 to 2012. (2)
Anxiety isn’t the only thing on the rise in the U.S. Studies show a major increase in depression as well. A study on Blue Cross Blue Shield medical claims from 2013 to 2016 found a 33 percent rise in diagnosis of major depression over those three years.
Why is it that our children and teens are more anxious than ever before?
Almost every single teen in the Western world has a powerful device at their fingertips. These devices are used to access millions of people around the globe and either sing praises and compliment style, or to sling insults, make racial slurs, shame bodies, promote violence, and encourage sexuality.
If your blood pressure rises just a little when you go into Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to check your likes, then you’ve felt the pressure of being liked on social media. If you’ve uploaded a video to YouTube or a picture to Instagram only to be met with negative comments from total strangers, then you’ve experienced a taste of social media anxiety disorder. (3)
That’s right—there’s a diagnosis for ongoing stress caused by social media, and many of our adolescents are experiencing it. From the outside, the anxiety looks much like “obsession” or “addiction” because that’s exactly how it expresses itself. Teens will check their phones every two to three minutes for notifications. They’ll interrupt conversations with close friends, parents, and teachers in order to stay updated.
The type of behavior seen in people with social media anxiety disorder can seriously impact a person’s personal or professional life negatively.
Teens and young adults who feel they are not getting enough attention on social media—or that they are getting too much negative attention—may be at risk for problems such as depression, paranoia, and loneliness. It’s no secret that certain teen suicides can be directly linked to bullying on social media. (4)
The whole internet has become one massive game of “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Posters ensure that only their best selves are uploaded. Realities are warped in calculated posts, filters, and captions. Never before has the world been so involved in the glamorous—and not-so-glamorous—“daily lives” of complete strangers.
Adolescents, teens, and young adults are in their most vulnerable and malleable stages of life. No wonder social media causes them anxiety and overstimulation. With terms like “FOMO” (fear of missing out) becoming commonplace in our teens’ vocabulary, we certainly have an insight as to one major cause of anxiety disorder in children today.
Rising Pressure to Succeed in School
The National Center for Education Statistics predicted that in fall 2017, 20.4 million students would attend American colleges and universities—an increase of 5.1 million since fall 2000. (5)
With the number of college- and university-attendees on the rise, so are the qualifications—and the competition—for admission.
Colleges and universities compete with one another for better students with higher IQs and higher grades and for better departments with smarter professors and superior facilities. This competition trickles down to high school, where students are competing for more impressive extracurricular activities, more hours of volunteer work, and of course, higher grades.
High schools are rated by their number of graduates that continue on to higher education. Better high schools are ones with graduates who attend Ivy League universities.
As the number of college and university attendees grow, high schools become more focused on urging students to excel in their courses, statewide exams, and standardized tests. The whole system becomes rigged to favor those who are better test takers.
The pressure doesn’t start in high school, though. It begins in elementary school and middle school when children are taught to value themselves according to their grades. It’s not even unusual anymore that children as young as 10 or 11 will cry in class, have a panic attack, or experience anxiety due to pressure to succeed in school. (6)
It’s possible we can help to relieve the pressure by addressing the fears, coming up with a plan together, and by helping children to put things into perspective.
Safety Concerns and Tragedies
There have been over 300 school shootings in America since 2013. Cries for gun control, better security, and stricter laws are getting louder as the number of victims of school shootings continues to rise.
These are the issues many American children are dealing with today. As tragedies unfold on TV and on social media, everyone gets a glimpse of what is going on in the “front line.”
Research shows that these tragedies have a direct impact on anxiety in children. In an interview on ABC Eyewitness News, Psychologist Nicole Fleming said, “What the literature shows is that anyone under the age of 12, which is the majority of our elementary school-aged children, shouldn’t be exposed to too much of what’s going on.” (7)
Fleming explains that when young children are exposed to a tragedy, it can impact their general feelings of safety and their worldview. Seeing images and videos from school shootings—even if the child is not involved—can invoke anxiety with a major impact on the developing brain.
Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to protect our young children from these things due to social media, the news, and school drills. Since children have a difficult time processing these events, it’s important to conduct honest and open conversations about the event while reassuring the child at the same time.
Today more than ever before, there is an unlimited number of stressors that threaten our children’s mental health.
We can’t put our children in bubbles. Even if we could—that itself would invoke anxieties.
What we could do is lay an open platform and invite our children to have honest conversations. When we feel that the fears and anxieties in our children and teens are beyond our scope, it is our responsibility to provide them with professional help.
Anxiety disorders are real. Ask, talk, and listen. Figure out how you can support the mental health of your children.