There is currently a documented epidemic occurring in our country. Teens and young adults are experiencing anxiety disorders at an alarming rate. Over 60% of undergraduates report having a level of anxiety that is overwhelming and debilitating. When their parents were in college the number was under 20%. Related to this epidemic, hospitalizations for suicide attempts have more than doubled in just the last 10 years. This heartbreaking phenomenon is confusing parents, and some professionals. But, research is being conducted to try to understand what is causing this flood of anxiety across our country.
At the top of the list of potential culprits is the rise of social media. Teens and young adults have always been prone to insecurities related to being afraid of failure and judgement. It is a time of identity creation and finding one’s way in the world. That can be some scary stuff. Social media can be brutal to someone who is vulnerable. Social media directly challenges us to compare ourselves to friends and peers. It also is an escape from the stressors of life. As teens go to social media to avoid the anxiety in their head they are invited to see all the (supposedly) amazing things others are doing. They see posts of people in their stage of life who have hundreds of friends, are confident and cool, and are accomplishing so much more than they are. As a result, they judge their own worth against the fantasy others are flaunting. We know that, in reality, people don’t typically post their low moments. They are not likely to share their failures and insecurities. They create a mostly false online reality to show to the world. Young adults, however, don’t fully understand that they are immersed in false perception. They only see that they don’t measure up. Their minds scramble to make sense of why they are failing and how they can possibly make it in the world.
Parents can mistake anxiety for shyness, avoidance, or even laziness. Meanwhile the teen is overwhelmed with demands such as trying to increase their peer status, getting good grades, trying to figure out what they want to be, getting into a good college, or finding a job. They may be being cyber bullied, which is a very real problem that is only getting worse. They may also be getting less than half the sleep they need as they struggle with their uncontrolled anxiety. Depression is a common co-occurring disorder that results from untreated anxiety. Many parents who see their teen struggling with mental health issues get stressed or angry by what they perceive as a weak or lazy child who needs to be pushed harder. “Stop slacking,” “Why is your homework not done yet?” “What is wrong with you!”
What can we do to help? In treatment, an important goal is to see what fantasies the mind is producing, and to understand that those false impressions do not have to control us. All of those teens and young adults are watching each other and wishing they were someone else. Few are embracing their own values, setting their own paths, and coping with stress in a healthy way. Of course, we want them to learn to manage their addiction to social media. But, we also want them to learn to make healthy choices about their outward behavior. We want them to set goals, and to reward themselves for meeting those individual daily goals of healthy living. Those goals are more than just sleep, exercise, and diet. Their goals should include reaching out to friends and peers in an honest way. They will learn to be brave and genuine. They will learn to accept that growing up is scary but also exciting and fun; and that they can take control and experience both, without being governed by fear. Ultimately they do need to decide who they want to be; but not in some future self. They need to decide who they want to be right now, and learn to live in their world on their own terms.