People often ask me why today’s youth increasingly suffer from anxiety and depression. First, look at some basic factors that help protect us all from depression. Adequate sleep, exercise, healthy food, success/meaning, and social connectedness begin to provide the basis for sound mental health. We have created a world that doesn’t support the most basic, essential building blocks.
Sleep has always been elusive for teens but today teens sleep in rooms with computers, TVs and other distractions that require a level of maturity to disengage from. The phone by the bed that buzzes about that one last snap-chat can be irresistible and go on for much of the night. Nutrition has suffered from the decline of the family meal time. Schools used to provide a somewhat healthy meal at school, but many students at my high schools put together a meal of chips, fries and a Coke. And teens today spend an average of eight hours a day on screens, that’s a lot of sitting.
This brings us to success and meaning. Teens 50-75 years ago found meaning through school and their role at home. Teens had very real responsibilities at home. They could see that if they didn’t do their chores, the family would suffer. Their contribution was real, necessary and a source of pride, belonging, and meaning. School was probably just as boring, but teens knew it was preparing them for a job that would support their families. They could be a mail carrier or a police officer and live a successful life. The bar today is so much higher.
Kids are given the message that they have to go to college. Those who don’t want to or aren’t able to feel that they have lost the race before they’ve even started. My students who weren’t going to college described a very bleak outlook. My graduating seniors often talked about being “terrified” of what life without college holds for them. The students who were headed to college knew that there were only a few majors that would pay off and those were hard to get into. The path to success keeps getting narrower and that is frightening to teens.
“Parents today are distracted by screens as much as their kids are. My students describe no interaction all evening at home while everyone attends to their own screen.”
And most fundamentally of all, a couple generations ago teens lives were full of social connection. They knew their neighbors. Extended family often lived close by. The church and the school were the center of the community. These people and institutions formed a network that transmitted its values and support to its youth. Today most kids have only their nuclear family and friends to support them. Parents today are distracted by screens as much as their kids are. My students describe no interaction all evening at home while everyone attends to their own screen. Kids with poor social skills used to have to go out and make an effort if they wanted a social life. Now they can just sit at their computer with “online friends” and be entertained.
We have lost the inter-connectedness that is essential to human beings. We are social animals. We need each other to thrive. We created this world. It can be amazing. But it can feel daunting and isolating for our younger members. We all have a choice about the future we want to create for our youth. Some things will take time and investment, but social connection is free and available anytime we want it and need it. And our youth need it more than anyone.
Lori Shoemaker is an MSW, LMHC, who has worked at middle and high schools and with hundreds of youth for Youth Eastside Services in Bellevue, WA for nearly 20 years. Her professional goals are quite simply to help youth, in middle and high school environments, reach their educational, emotional and social goals. To be an advisor and mentor that helps them find a successful path in life.