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Are Teens Worse Off Than Ever Before? Part II

To read Part I of this series, click here.

Teens today have incredible opportunity—made possible by technology—to access knowledge, form community, find support, discover and express themselves. Think of any teen you know: do they have an active presence on at least 20 social media platforms? I would guess so. (I will write in more detail about the impact of technology on teens’ mental health in a separate post.)

One would think that, with all of this digital gold at their fingertips, they would be poised to lead the world into the future. Sadly, I don’t think that’s the case.

A Changing Landscape From A Teen Perspective

Technological, economic and cultural shifts in the last two decades have restructured how we think about education and work. Budget cuts to schools have led them to slash arts programs and try to compete for accreditation and funding through various rigorous and universal performance-based metrics (student testing). This, along with the increasing cost and selectivity of colleges, has created a high school climate of escalating competition and fear: students as early as 8th grade are constantly thinking: Are my grades good enough? Will I get into a good college? Do I have enough extracurricular activities in my life to please the college admissions overlords?

My teen clients are wrenched from their much-needed sleep, before dawn, and whisked into a forced program of classes they don’t like (but for which they are assigned hours of daily homework) and sports and extracurricular activities (that they are too exhausted to enjoy.) Under the watchful eyes of their well-meaning helicopter-parents, they are literally working 12-hour days. Why is this?

Teen Brain Development

As traditional industries get “disrupted” and replaced by technology and the division of wealth in the U.S. widens extraordinarily, teens are starting to feel pressure on all sides—perhaps semi-consciously—to adapt and set themselves up for success. They feel the anxiety of their families, their teachers, their peers, and their elected leaders—the entire weight of our cultural anxiety about our economic future gets placed on our children.

This is bleak, of course, but it’s even worse when you consider that teen brains simply aren’t equipped to think about the future in the long-term. That capacity is one that they develop neurologically and psychologically as they move through adolescence and into early adulthood (brains continue to grow up to age 25!) So what are the consequences of saddling someone largely incapable deferring gratification or planning ahead—a 13 year-old, for example—with a level of anxiety and pressure that even adults have trouble managing?

The answer: anxiety, depression, self-mutilation, substance abuse. These are ways teens attempt to cope with the enormous pressures and uncertainties they face.

What Can We Do?

Of course, every parent wants their child to succeed—to thrive, find happiness, find partnership, have children, and enjoy a nice standard of living. But the steps taken to “ensure” these things are having, in many cases, precisely the opposite effect. Teens are developing anxiety, depressive and substance abuse disorders early in life that will cause suffering—despite any outward appearance of being “functional’—for much of their lives.

As a parent, it’s important to talk to your teen about the pressures they face—to acknowledge them, and to make sure they know that you will love them no matter how booked their schedules are or how highly they achieve. And it’s important to give them space: time to dream, drift, wander, observe, explore, experiment, fail, discover, make mistakes – and to simply be. This allows the development of inner space that will be crucial to their long-term psychological well-being as they navigate life’s inevitable challenges.

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