Technology and the Mental Health Crisis
Young brain + Constant Digital Stressors = Stress and Anxiety
Recently, counselors from our school district talked during the meeting with the parents about the mental health crisis they have on their hands. One counselor shared that she had performed double the risk assessments in the first marking period this year alone than in the entire year when she started on the job 6 years ago. If you are counting, that translates to an 800% increase in her workload. A risk assessment is performed when a student is considered at risk for self-harm. It’s part of the suicide prevention program. And the kids she works with are 10-14 years old.
Counselors spoke of the kids who don’t sleep through the entire night spent on social media – and come to their office the next morning complaining they cannot possibly function at school today. School counselors simply cannot keep up – and even develop their own mental health crises as a result! So many kids are stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, emotionally falling apart, and desperate for help – but adults are at a loss as to what plagues them.
What is happening? Statistically, in the last few decades the average amount of schoolwork has not changed. The number of extracurricular activities has stayed approximately the same. There is no war or famine, and crime rates are at historical lows. Why all of a sudden are young people losing their minds? What has changed? In particular, what has happened since the year 2007, when all the bad mental health statistics started going through the roof?
2007 was the hinge point in history. It’s the year when the iPhone was launched. Facebook, Twitter, and Cloud storage all came into existence around the same time. 2007 marks the official start of the digital age.
Dr. Jean Twenge in her thoroughly scientific, research-based book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us reports that although kids today are physically safer than ever, more of them are suffering from anxiety, depression, and stress, and more are committing suicide. And technology is the reason – because it’s the only big thing that has happened that could explain it all.
Young Brain is Vulnerable to Stress
Adolescents are different from adults. In ancient Greece, Aristotle had an opinion about teenagers: “Young people are passionate, irascible, and apt to be carried away by their impulses”.
Frances E. Jensen in her book The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults writes about teen stress: “Because our teenagers are as yet unable to smooth things out using their frontal lobes, it’s up to us to be the filter, the regulator, to provide the sense of calm their brains can’t yet provide”.
Teens’ desire to break away from parental control and establish their own identity drives them to experiment and take risks. Adolescents are tempted to try dangerous stuff they see on the Internet. That’s the dark side of the principle of social proof – if somebody somewhere has done this, then it’s an option for me too. But when the behavior in question is posting naked pictures or doing self-harm, the price paid for experimentation is too high.
The emotional center of the brain, the amygdala, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, is operating at maximum speed in adolescence. Compared to an adult brain, it’s a Formula One car. In scientific research papers, the teen years are politely described as time of “increased emotional reactivity and sensitivity”. Parents, beware – your teens are overly sensitive, and they are explosive. In middle school everything is drama, the slightest misfortune is the end of the world. In other words, the young brain has an overactive stress response system. When young people get stressed, it’s a lot more intense for them. Negative feelings are raw and the rational thinking is not there to tame them.
The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for self-control and rational judgement, is not fully developed until age 25. Teens are technically capable of rationality and logic, hence their ability to obtain high SAT scores. But the white matter in the brain that serves as the bridge between the emotional and rational centers is still “under construction”. That’s why emotional self-regulation is so hard for teens. They often act impulsively without thinking of consequences. There is simply no hardware for inhibition yet.
To summarize, in the adolescent brain 3 things are true:
1. Rational brain is not fully developed
2. Emotional brain is in overdrive
3. They don’t talk to each other!
How Do Kids Get Stressed?
Here is an example of teen stress a friend shared with me. On Friday night her daughter receives pictures from her friends showing them having a great time at a fabulous party – which she was not invited to. She spends the weekend feeling sad, inadequate, unpopular, betrayed, anxious about her social standing, and questioning her self-worth. Stories like these – kids that are not invited to participate in the experience but still get to see the experience broadcasted – play out millions of times every day on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, WhatsApp – whatever the primary social channel of communication they happen to use.
Another friend’s daughter, a sophomore in high school, a very shy girl, had an innocent, almost middle-school type relationship with her boyfriend. But when they broke up, all hell broke loose. He started pestering her with endless texts begging to get back together, and when she tried to block his contact, he got to her through all of her friends’ social media. There was no escape. Her phone was always with her. The girl ended up having a panic attack in the middle of class, went pale, almost fainted, and the school was about to call an ambulance. But since phones were allowed in the classroom to stress the girl out, the school administration also left it to the shaken girl to call her family to inform them that, by the way, she just experienced a panic attack.
1. Digital Obligations Overload
Kids today are on 24/7, having to keep up with a thousand digital obligations: social media to read and update, texting threads to keep going, likes to collect, dish out and reciprocate, gaming communities and digital worlds to attend to. Add intense academic pressure, toxic competition for college admissions, family obligations, and extensive extracurricular commitments.
Real life did not go anywhere with the advent of a digital age, it is still happening in addition to the 7-9 hours a day (for young adults – 11 hours!) that are claimed by the screens. A recent study found that the heaviest smartphone users (aka, young people) click, tap or swipe on their phone 5,427 times a day. But the universe did not add extra time to deal with all this new activity – there is still only 24 hours in a day, and humans still need to sleep sometimes! Performing all these micro-tasks is not optional in their world, by the way. You are always expected to respond – instantly. Always on. Always available.
If I had that much on my agenda, I would fall apart too.
Our brains are basically the same as 50,000 years ago. They have evolved to live and thrive in the physical world.
Only in the last couple of decades has the world changed – the majority of waking hours are now spent on screens, in a world that is artificial. The amount of digital information consumed is astronomical. The speed with which it is consumed has dropped the human attention span from 12 to 8 seconds – maybe less by now. But the brain is still the same – it is not designed to process such quantities of information coming at us with such speed.
I envision that the mental health crisis has a lot to do with this change of environment.
Imagine the brain as a meteor. It might have been flying through the vacuum in space for millions of years, but once it enters the new environment of the Earth’s atmosphere, it burns out and falls apart. I believe something similar happens to our emotional stability, ability to concentrate, social skills and every other traditional human metric in the unnatural environment of digital media.
There is too much going on. It’s too dense. It’s too fast. It’s bad enough for an adult brain, but much worse for the growing brain that expects to be formed in the real world, but instead finds itself for 9 hours a day inside Fortnite or Facebook.
3. Emotional Overload
Theodore Roosevelt said: “Comparison is a thief of joy.” Young people spend hours every day looking at the “highlight reel” of their friends’ lives on social media, compare it to their own messy reality, and end up feeling inadequate and depressed. Social media demands that you show your best, “I am fine!” facade to the world. And not only “I am fine!”, but also “I am better than you!”. A comparison trap has been set up. How can one be vulnerable and real with this kind of pressure against them?
Social networking is a minefield. It is an open secret that social media is strongly correlated with depression.
Despite that, young people get sucked into using multiple social media channels by FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. FOMO is the stress and pressure to never miss out on anything that’s going on, no matter how shallow. Many variations of FOMO exist, all of them are about one thing – FEAR. There is MOMO (Mystery of Missing Out): when friends are not posting anything and you assume they are too busy having fun without you. There is FOJI (Fear Of Joining In) when you are afraid to join a social media channel – what if nobody likes what you have to say? The more there is to do on social media, the longer the list of things to worry about.
Psychologists know that those fabulous Facebook facades of life are about staging joy, not feeling it.
Kids are directing the movie of their own lives, constructing artificial social media identities designed for show, for positive feedback, for validation. Sensitivity to criticism in adolescence is already high, but now kids are being publicly evaluated, judged, rated for everything they do. Their academic, athletic, and social life is assessed in real time. They are always worried about posting the wrong thing and facing criticism and rejection. Never being left alone to just be. No breathing room to relax, think and reflect.
Sounds like hell to me.
4. Self-Esteem Breakdown
“If people really were as happy as they look on the Internet, they would not spend so much damn time on the Internet, because no one who is having a really good day spends half of it taking pictures of themselves”
As junk food has ruined kids’ physical health, junk values have taken over their mental health. Showing off status on social media, trying to outdo others in popularity, while neglecting what is truly important: meaning and purpose, helping others, kindness, love. They are looking for meaning in all the wrong places. Happiness cannot be generated by inspiring envy on social media, because propping yourself up by making others feel depressed in comparison to your achievements is an ugly – and shaky – foundation for personal fulfillment.
Garbage in, garbage out. But that’s what our kids are consuming. Surveys show that their biggest ambition is “to be famous”. To have more followers on TikTok. More likes on Facebook and Instagram. Girls take 300 selfies a day, spend hours editing them, and post them on social media anxiously awaiting the likes.
And when the likes are not coming, their self-esteem is crushed.
Sometimes what they get instead is abusive and derogatory comments. Especially if these can be delivered anonymously – the worst of human behavior is unleashed on the Internet. To base their self-esteem on the shifting sands of public opinion is a recipe for disappointment, feelings of inadequacy, and in some cases, a full-blown mental health crisis.
There is nothing more fickle than public opinion. Especially if their audience are kids themselves – not the group one could expect to be thoughtful and caring. As a result, adolescents who are already emotionally vulnerable are left to cope with mean insensitive comments from other kids who don’t know better – they are kids! Which on social media can be brutal to the young identities as they are just being formed. Mean comments and no likes are interpreted by kids as “I have no worth”.
There is a disturbing trend that adolescent girls seem to be suffering from screen time-related anxiety and depression more than boys, and the studies – well summarized in a bestselling book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by moral psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff point out to 3 main reasons:
- Girls’ sense of self-worth suffers from being left out of social events broadcasted on social media. They can see all the fun their “friends” excluded them from, providing overwhelming evidence that they are “worthless”
- Toxic culture of comparison to the impossible standards of beauty and success on social media
- Relational aggression – unlike boys, who tend to be physically aggressive, girls are “relationally aggressive” – going to great length to ruin each other’s status on social media. Mean girls these days are DIGITALLY mean.
5. Exposure to Darkness
Anxiety is inevitable when kids are exposed to all the negative content on the Internet. Kids’ natural curiosity can take them to dark places online, where they risk experiencing things that can permanently damage their minds, and even cause physical harm.
Violence, porn, predators, disorders, and suicide are all residents of the digital world.
Disturbing, violent, inappropriate and dangerous information on the Internet that kids and teens access – intentionally or accidentally – can be scary, confusing, and traumatic. It is likely that some are led by online information into copycat behaviors of self-harm and even suicide, if they are already depressed and susceptible to such dark influences.
Digital media products are designed for isolation: to be consumed alone, in solitude. The whole business model is powered by isolation, driving humans apart from each other. Kids may have several hundred friends on Facebook, but they are lonely. Science knows that isolation is what fuels mental health problems. Depression, anxiety, hate, lack of empathy, all of those toxic things are the markers of isolation. Yet digital media encourages the atrophy of human connection, social skills, compassion for a fellow human being, because it is consumed alone one on one with the screen and takes people away from the human connection that is vital to both individual health and the health of the society.
When we observe our kids, how do we know when it is time to worry? Signs of depression are easy to miss in teens these days – are they withdrawn because they are depressed and need help, or simply too absorbed in their phones, as usual? A normal teen and a teen contemplating suicide will look and behave exactly the same on the outside – no one will notice until it’s too late. I personally knew a 15 year old girl who took her life. I saw her every week. Nothing was visibly wrong with her. In our little town with only two traffic lights there have been five cases like her in the last few years.
Something needs to be done to prevent it. And for those who believe that digital media overload has nothing to do with it, here again are the wise words of an expert, Dr. Twenge: “The downside of assuming screens are one of the causes of these serious issues is small: parents limit teens’ phone or social media use to 2 hours a day or less. However, the consequences of brushing aside these considerable increases in teen depression and suicide rates is much more serious.”
7. No Escape
Parents are the last line of defense to give kids the much-needed breathing room. Left to their own devices, by the time children grow up into young adults, they are hopelessly addicted to screens.
For teens today there is no escape from stress. Stress follows them around on their phones 24/7, it’s in the midst of their loving family at home that is no longer a sanctuary, it’s in the privacy of their bedroom at night. As long as the phone is in their hands, mayhem, violence, disaster of the daily news or the latest social media drama are bombarding their minds.
A thousand daily traumas. And no time to heal.
I have a very smart friend who is a great admirer of technology, advocates exposing his kids to it, buys every gadget for them, and yet, still limits their screen time. When I asked him why – if you think technology is so great, why wouldn’t you just let your kids play video games all day long? He thought about it and answered:
Because they would be depleted.
Emotionally drained. Hollow. Empty.
With no capacity left to pursue other activities.
And no ability for emotional self-regulation.
Sources and footnotes:
Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us
Frances E. Jensen, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults
Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash.com