Thursday, October 12, 2017

Anxious Teens

Benoit Denizet-Lewis has a long piece in the Times titled, "Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?" It's a pretty good article, built around conversations with anxious teens, teachers, and therapists, but it says very little in answer to the title question. And it is a very hard and important question.

I have heard these answers seriously proposed:
1) smartphones and social media
2) economic stagnation leading to stress about success
3) political turmoil
4) over-involved parenting, excessively scheduled lives, etc.
5) too much emphasis on safety, not enough tolerance of risk in children's lives
6) living cut of from nature; not enough time outside, to much tv and digital media, etc.
I find it hard to credit 2) and 3) for historical reasons: nobody noticed a big surge in youth anxiety in the Depression, and I find it hard to believe that Trump is more anxiety provoking than the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear attack drills. I acknowledge that racism, sexism, and other isms are still serious problems but I do not believe that they have gotten worse. Bad things cannot explain a doubling or tripling or more of the incidence of severe anxiety; only things that have gotten worse in the past 30 years can be possible explanations. The same goes for bullying; I am sure bullying is a major cause of anxiety in children but I do not think it has gotten worse, so it can't explain the striking increase.

I give some credit to our whole society's focus on risk. From where I sit on my train I can see five separate yellow and black CAUTION or EMERGENCY signs: for steps, a low bit of the ceiling, the emergency exits, the ax kept behind glass, and the instructions for what to do in an emergency. Everywhere you go on construction sites, loading docks, and other sites of manual labor you see signs that say SAFETY FIRST. All this focus safety has in fact made us safer; vehicle accident rates and on-the-job deaths are way down. But if you are really putting safety first all the time, could that make you anxious? Is the price of constant vigilance about dangers that we internalize the vigilance even when there are no dangers? Does a world full of yellow and black CAUTION signs promote a generalized anxiety?

I am also interested in the very safe way most of us live. Do children who are not allowed to wander the neighborhood, explore in the woods or build fires miss acquiring a resilience that more free-ranging children used to get? Which I'm not blaming just on cautious parents; in my experience children with the internet, video games and 500 tv channels are less interested in going out and exploring even when their parents push them to. But it seems to me that contemporary children get a lot less exposure to small doses of risk like bike-riding and tree climbing, and maybe that has long-term effects.

I don't know about pressure to succeed. I suppose it could be that some children are anxious because their parents push them too hard and sign them up for too may activities and talk all the time about getting into college. But I am skeptical that this can be the whole cause because I know anxious children of very laid-back parents. One of the teachers Denizet-Lewis spoke to said that some kids are driven to achieve by their parents but others do all the driving themselves, and this is also my experience.

Which leaves me wondering a lot about digital life. All the young people I know live largely in a digital world: television, music, video games, memes and Facebook make up a huge part of their lives, maybe the biggest part. I really don't know why that would promote anxiety; I am unimpressed by all the talk of how Facebook makes people hyper-self-conscious because I know anxious young people who are not at all into social media, and hyper-self-consciousness was a huge part of modern adolescence before computers came along. But when I look for a difference between how I grew up and how my children have, the digital world is the most salient thing I see. So by process of elimination I keep ending up thinking that too much digital life may be doing something bad to our brains.


JustPeachy said...

Being cut off from nature is credible, IMO. Risk-aversity, sure. But if I made that list, I'd include "lack of practical skill". When you look around, and everything you see is something that you could not make, don't even know how to make... and most of the work you do is dependent on tools whose complexity you cannot begin to grasp... who are you? Does the world even need you? Are you in fact completely useless? Most of the teenagers I know have never used a garden spade, hammer, or vegetable peeler (don't vegetables come pre-sliced in a bag?).

Unknown said...

I wonder if a problem is that digital media is so powerfully absorbing and attractive that it leads to profound inner conflicts. One conflict would be a realization that one repeatedly succumbs to total absorption, loss of time, compulsion to keep clicking, etc.--in essence, a loss of self-control. Another conflict would arise from the fact that, while we've added digital media into the mix, we still require all sorts of non-digital activity--so there could be a feeling that one has left something undone, and that one is failing, once one has succumbed to the digital vortex. Still a third tension would be that between what we say we want them to do, and what we offer them to do instead (which would relate to the second conflict, but would be a more externalized type of conflict).

Digital media seems to have a raw power to attract and absorb participation in a way that climbing trees, etc., not only doesn't have for this generation, but perhaps didn't have when people still did those things. Perhaps a routine weakening or compromising of a very basic sense of self--I don't mean anything fanciful or poetic here, I mean a simple sense of self as a bounded, autonomous being--is taking its toll.

G. Verloren said...

"Bad things cannot explain a doubling or tripling or more of the incidence of severe anxiety; only things that have gotten worse in the past 30 years can be possible explanations."

I can't agree with this notion, because we have plenty of examples of bad things happening to people at the same if not greater rates in the past, but reporting of those things being far less in the past.

Take, for example, domestic abuse. Men didn't suddenly become more violent in the second half of the 20th century. But reporting did improve dramatically, and the social stigma surrounding being a beaten child or spouse decreased somewhat, enough so that many more people began to speak out more frequently about terrible things that previously they were expected to just suffer through silently.

Kids these days are more anxious than kids of the past? Maybe that's because they actually have more ability to be anxious these days, without it being beaten out of them, literally or figuratively, by a society which has no tolerance for anxiety as a perceived weakness or even sin.

Or maybe the numbers of anxious youth haven't actually changed much, but more of them are willing to publically admit that they suffer from anxiety. Perhaps the cost-benefit equation of doing so has changed. Maybe now it costs a person less to admit to being anxious, and perhaps doing so now has a greater potential benefit for them. Maybe they're now much more likely to receive help with their problem, instead of being shamed and victimized for suffering from it.

That's not to say other factors might not also influence the situation - only that it seems a bit absurd to suggest the only possible explanation is things have somehow gotten worse. They very well may have, to some degree. But they just as easily might have gotten better in some areas, in ways that contribute to a rise in reporting of an issue that maybe we didn't realize was as wide spread as it really is.

G. Verloren said...

I'd also like to address some of the various suggested "answers" to this problem, one by one.

1) Smartphones and social media.

People always freak out about the latest technological fads, and their popularity with the youth, and how they're being corrupted and made into worse people because of it.

Before rock and roll became as wholesome and American as apple pie, it was seen as terrifying devil music driving the youth to sin. Before that, jazz music was the culprit responsible for societal decay. Automobiles, when they were very new, were seen as a corrupting force to be shunned.

Telephones caused a panic, as people feared they could make you deaf, or even electrocute you. People at various points used to think it was impossible to exceed 20 or 30 miles per hour safely - you can find stories of people speculating that a train entering a tunnel at such speeds would cause passengers to suffocate for lack of air, or that people would suffer traumatic injuries as a result of the "shock" of such speed.

People used to complain that newpapers and books were harming society in the exact same ways that smartphones are supposedly doing. Children were told off for having their noses buried in cheap mass printed tomes, not paying attention to the world around them, not being involved in conversations.

So no, smartphones and social media aren't the problem.

2) Economic stagnation.

John's argument about the Great Depression doesn't sway me, in that I very much doubt anyone was paying attention to things like youth anxiety in order to be able to notice any potential surge in it.

I also, as noted in my above post, think that in the past, our society was a lot less tolerant of displays or admissions of anxiety, and the universal and overbearing expectation was to "toughen up" and "get over it". With seemingly no other option available to young people in the 30s, I imagine many of them suffered horribly from anxiety, but felt terrified of speaking about it to anyone, for fear that doing so would just make things worse.

3) Political turmoil.

Again, I'm not swayed by John's arguments here.

The Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of nuclear war were certainly anxiety inducing, but they happened at a time of economic prosperity. The 1950s and early 60s were a time when there were plenty of jobs to be had, cost of living was low, and society itself was relatively positive in attitude.

Also, the Cold War was seen as a threat, but it was an external threat - internally, people had a fair degree of faith in their country, their government, and their society. That of course is not to suggest that things were rosy and perfect at this time, as there was quite a lot going on even then, but the overall sense was that the greatest threats to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were from outside of America - not from within, and certainly not from our own leadership.

4) & 5) "Helicopter Parenting"

This one I'm going to skip, as I'm not sure I have much cohesive to say about it, other than to admit that I am personally against it, and fear it does lead to children being smothered.

6) "Not Enough Outside Time"

This is nonsense, and easily shown to be.

Consider the urban youth of major cities at the turn of the 20th century. Did kis in the smoggy depths of London or the crowded streets of New York get a lot of "time with nature", or "fresh air"? People have been growing up in major cities nearly completely isolated from the natural world for well over a hundred years and yet somehow it only became a problem recently? I don't buy it.

G. Verloren said...

"I acknowledge that racism, sexism, and other isms are still serious problems but I do not believe that they have gotten worse."

They may not have gotten worse, but they certainly have become far more visible, better defined and able to be recognized and understood, and easier to talk about.

One of the most common things you hear from people who suffer from, for example, domestic abuse is that they are always shocked to learn that the terrible things which happened to them don't exist in a vacuum. What seemed exceptional and deeply personal to them when it was happening, they later learn is literally a textbook example of a behavioral sickness that affects millions of other people.

Most report this realization to be incredibly liberating, because they suddenly realize "It wasn't my fault". This painful, awful, confusing thing that happened to them over and over for years never made sense to them. The only explanation they could think of as to "Why is this happening to me?" had always been "I must have done something wrong; this is all my fault".

But then later, they find out these terrible things aren't unique to them. There are words for these behaviors and feelings they've grappled with for so long without have names for them! These things can be talked about! They have definitions! They have been studied, in depth, by experts! There actually is a logical explanation behind it all!

And most importantly, there are other people who understand!

Can you even imagine? You've suffered, all alone, your whole life with this terrible burden that you don't understand, that you feel personally responsible for and guilty about, and which you can't ever talk to anyone about, despite all of your pain and loneliness.

And then suddenly you learn you're not alone? That it wasn't your fault? That it actually can be understood, and even prevented in the future, with just a little bit of help and kindness from others? It must practically be a religious experience.

So the various nasty "Isms" of the world may not have become all that much nastier over time, but absolutely it's become easier to talk about these things with other people; to find information to help you make sense of things; and to find help and compassion from strangers who share your pain.

Before racism, sexism, and all the rest can be eliminated, they must first be talked about and understood. And that's the major change that has happened in recent decades. Technology and society have both changed in ways that make it easier to learn about and to organize against the evils of the world.

And as more people have become more awareness of these issues, the less of them have lived in the bliss of unwilling ignorance or the misery of unwilling silence.

leif said...

i'll throw in a suggested source of anxiety that hasn't changed since i was a kid, and probably hasn't changed since we started putting children together with adult leaders to teach them how to function in society: ingroup/outgroup pressure. the status struggle has tentacles into every of the foregoing explanations, and for that reason i think they all carry at least some validity, even if in varying degrees.

technology for instance may permit manipulation on a scale we've never seen before. at what point in human history could so many people be influenced by so little effort?

economic stagnation certainly borders ingroup/outgroup pressure, though it's hard for me to say how today's kids fare. i can say from personal experience i was aware of differences in what i perceived to be economic status of a kid's family, but it didn't play into the equation much for me. i suspect that rich/poor epithets are wielded today with greater fury than in my past, but this is up for debate.

political turmoil -- i don't really expect that kids today are tuned-in to politics enough for this to be an important factor. it was a rare kid in the 80s who was, and though today all of us can be exposed to it, i suspect like so many nonvoting adults, a lot of kids just tune it out.

helicopter parenting -- i'm going to take a SWAG here that this actually has some impact: in the way that uptight pet owners tend to raise sullen, aggressive or anxious pets, so too can we attribute some degree of childhood anxiety to anxious parents. i haven't researched this but it seems more likely than standard received wisdom.

time outdoors -- actually i think it makes a difference. it's unlikely a huge one unless you take captain fantastic as your sole proof. i would suggest that time outside helps everyone, not just children, see the bigger picture and gain some firmer grounding because of it. G has a point of course that removal from nature hasn't led to collapse. i'm just sandbagging a bit here in persisting the notion that getting out of the house, out of the city, often* encourages emotions opposed to anxiety -- wonder, hope, enthusiasm.

* Of course exceptions will always surface; for instance I had a manager once who insisted she hates nature. She was quite serious. She said as little time as she can spend outside of buildings or cars or such, the better. Some folks are just like that.

G. Verloren said...


Kids are perhaps more tuned into politics these days than you might think.

For many of them, grappling personally with issues of their own sex, sexuality, race, religion, philosophy, and general identities is a process they undertake with help from the collective knowledge of the internet.

A teen who is questioning who they are and what it means to even be "X" will very quickly find lots of information about the topic of their interest online. More than that, they will come into contact with like minded people who care deeply about these issues, and it is from these people that they start to hear about and take notice of the acts of politicians which are pertinent to their cause.

If you're a young homosexual looking for information and acceptance, the people who give it to you are also going to try to clue you in on which sorts of people in the world are actively working to harm homosexuals, and should be opposed. They'll tell you about the homophobic activities of politicians like Mike Pence and Ted Cruz; about those of corporate entities like Chick-Fil-A and Salvation Army; and about those of private organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church or the Family Research Council.

Ditto if you're of Latin American heritage and are facing the prospect of friends, neighbors, loved ones, or family being harassed by the public and victimized by the government in the light of resist surges in racism. Ditto again if you're of African American descent and trying to make sense of yet another instance of an unarmed black teenager being shot dead in the street by white cops who walk free.

Or if you're questioning your fundamentalist religious upbringing. Or if you're questioning your white supremacist upbringing. Or if you're questioning your patriarchally misogynistic upbringing. Or if you're questioning your anti-vaccination and homeopathy upbringing. And on, and on, and on.

Thirty years ago, if you started to develop serious doubts about your entire world view as a teenager, it took significant effort to act upon those doubts. Information wasn't always accessible, and what little you might be able to find could not be sufficient, or might be provided by biased sources with a vested interest in misleading you. Worse than that, it could be a very serious risk to even attempt to find such information, with severe ramifications if certain adults in your life found out about your misgivings.

But today? Most kids are more tech-savvy than their parents or guardians, and information is far more accessible and far harder to police. If you have a smartphone and your authoritiy figures aren't as computer literate as you are, it becomes a relatively simple matter to research most anything you could want to know without being noticed, and with the potential of making allies and finding acceptence in the process.

Unknown said...

I would agree with G. that the current greater ease and acceptability of reporting anxiety is a factor. No question in my mind, FWIW.

On the other hand, I am not convinced by the argument that, because past people feared bad effects from new technology, such fears are wrong about every technology. Anyone who feared the bad effects of thalidomide, or lead in house paint, or increasing availability of opiates, might well consider themselves to have been proven right.

The thing is, the hypothesis that interactive digital media can have negative psychological effects should be potentially testable. I would also point out that my suggestions rely on the ability of interactive digital media to be peculiarly absorbing to the attention, something which I have experienced in myself and in my family, and which might actually be true, or not true.

Unknown said...

Here's another thought, just a set of observations and possibilities. I'm often struck, when, for example, watching 1940s movies or reading WWII novels, at the amount of routine, ambient, underlying social hostility, which seems much greater than that ambient in middle and upper-middle class social life today. I wonder if the change in the way authority presents itself from, say, a notional baseline in 1930 or 1940, to the more benign face it sometimes presents today, is an issue. I do NOT, repeat NOT, mean that beating kids toughens them so that we don't have to deal with all this pesky complaining, or anything like that. What I'm thinking of is that, when authority presents a tough face, it will provoke anger in subordinates, which has its own social-psychological costs, of course, but among which anxiety may not be salient. But when authority presents a benign face, and yet is still authority, subordinates may tend to feel less angry and more anxious in their subordinate position.

Being a subordinate is, for many, an alienating, psychologically costly state--not that society could exist without subordination, but the cost is there. Maybe anxiety is the expression of subordinate alienation in a social state that is otherwise materially abundant and/or where authority tends to present itself in a caring, benign guise. I realize that there are many cases where authority today still presents itself in a cruel 1940s guise, as in police treatment of minorities, cruel bosses, etc.; but in talking about the contemporary wave of teen anxiety, we are to a certain extent talking about privileged middle and upper-middle class youth, are we not?

Unknown said...

I'm sorry to pile on the posts, but I would also point out that digital social media is famous for stimulating and/or releasing displays of hostility that we no longer consider acceptable or normal in face-to-face interactions. Perhaps there is some connection there with my observations in my last post.

John said...

@David: "Being a subordinate is, for many, an alienating, psychologically costly state--not that society could exist without subordination, but the cost is there. Maybe anxiety is the expression of subordinate alienation in a social state that is otherwise materially abundant and/or where authority tends to present itself in a caring, benign guise."

I find this fascinating and profound.

Unknown said...

@John: :)

I thought of this issue again while reading the NYT article about factory closings etc., that you posted about today. The article mentions the anxiety the main character's daughter was left with because her parents fought a lot. I wonder if the anxious teen's dilemma isn't a pale reflection--let me emphasize pale--of that of the abused person who loves their abuser. The benign authority earns a kind of sympathy from the subordinate because of its benignity, but it is still an authority.