Are You Raising A Member Of The ‘Anxious Generation’? Here’s How To Protect Your Kid’s Happiness.

Implementing more phone-free opportunities for connection — like at mealtimes — can help kids create healthy boundaries with their screens.

A new bestselling book has labeled teens today “the Anxious Generation.” If your child is a teen (or will be soon), you’re probably wondering if there’s anything you can do to protect their mental health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which analyzed data collected from 2011 to 2021, the number of young people who had experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose steadily over those those years, reaching 42% in 2021. Rates were even higher for female students and those who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer (the survey did not ask students if they were trans). The number of adolescents who thought about suicide, made a plan for suicide or attempted suicide all rose over that time period, too.

The pandemic certainly took its toll on the mental health of teens (and the rest of us), but some factors predate COVID. Young people are struggling, and adults are trying to figure out why.

Here, experts make the case for what they think is behind the rise in teen’s distress, and recommend what measures parents can take to protect their kids and preserve their happiness.

Limit screen time, especially social media, and maximize interactions in real life.

One hypothesis is that technology is behind the rise in teen’s mental health issues. Today’s teens are digital natives who don’t remember a time before smartphones and social media, and we can all see that there are some big downsides to living online: a lack of authentic connection and the spread of cyberbullying and misinformation.

In “The Anxious Generation,” author Jonathan Haidt makes a compelling case connecting the decline in mental health to technological advances.

Zach Rausch, Haidt’s chief researcher at New York University, explained to HuffPost that the way social media evolved from 2009 to 2015 has made it “particularly harmful to adolescents.”

The addition of “like” and “retweet” buttons in 2009, the advent of front-facing cameras on phones and the launch of visually-oriented platforms like Instagram transformed social media “from a place that allowed you to ‘network’ with your friends into a place where you ‘platformed’ yourself to an audience to be judged,” Rausch said.

Kids naturally look for validation from their peers on social media, and can be left feeling isolated or rejected if they don’t find it.

“These new platforms transformed social relationships in a way that often makes you feel left out and less than others,” Rausch said.

He explained that his research identified four “fundamental harms” of screen time: social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and
behavioral addiction.

Together, he said, these harms explain the surge in mental health issues among young people who have grown up online. Lack of sleep and in-person connection, as well as the impact of features like endless scrolling, take a toll on kids’ brains.

He noted that not all screen time is the same. Activities like watching a movie with friends, video calling a family member or playing a video game with someone aren’t the concern here. It’s posting and scrolling on apps like TikTok that “sucks kids in and keeps them from real-world interactions that are crucial for their social development.”

Haidt and his team make some pretty ambitious recommendations to keep kids safe from these online dangers, like refusing to give them a phone until age 14, and blocking social media until age 16 — although kids are masters of using platforms without their parents’ knowledge and creating social media accounts that parents don’t know about.

If your kids do have phones, there are still steps you can take to mitigate harm. “The most important thing we can do is help provide our children with structure around their screen time usage,” Rausch said. This might mean no phones at the dinner table, or no phones in bedrooms at night. The trick is that these kind of restrictions work best when they are family-wide agreements, meaning parents have to follow them, too.

You can also help by maximizing the number of in-person interactive experiences your child is having. Family dinners, volunteer work, game nights or other activities will give them opportunities to socialize and grow.

Another opportunity to keep kids productively occupied? Simple, old-fashioned chores. It can be tempting to skip this one because it’s just so hard to implement — nagging is often-involved, as are re-dos for haphazard work. But chores build skills and help kids see that they have a unique role in their family.

KJ Dell’Antonia, author of “How To Be A Happier Parent,” told HuffPost: “Busy people are happier, and people who feel needed by the ones they love are happier still. This goes for kids as well as adults. No one likes to feel like a burden, even if it does seem like your kids prefer that you do everything for them. Kids who feel like an important part of the family unit (and not its center) tend to be more successful at school and more positive about themselves in general.”

Implementing more phone-free opportunities for connection — like at mealtimes — can help kids create healthy boundaries with their screens.

Show kids they matter because of who they are, not what they achieve.

Jennifer Wallace, author of “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic And What We Can Do About It,” noted that a 2021 surgeon general’s advisory about teens’ stressors outlined a host of contributing factors. These include: “genetics, relationships to parents and peers, rising achievement pressure, growing use of digital media, limited access to mental health care, and broader stressors such as the worsening economy and fewer social safety nets,” Wallace said.

In other words, while social media may be one cause, there are others — and other opportunities to intervene.

In her book, Wallace explains the concept of “mattering,” which she described to HuffPost as “a universal human need and cornerstone of mental health.” Kids need to know that they are loved and valued, and an integral part of a family and community.

“When they feel like they matter only when they are achieving good marks,
look a certain way or drive a certain brand-name car, we set them up for mental health struggles. When these external validations of worth are not met, young people question their worth. They turn against themselves and become anxious, [or] depressed, [or] even self-harm,” Wallace said.

Parents can truly make a difference here and help kids feel like they matter by “minimizing criticism and prioritizing affection.”

Of course you want your kids to do their homework and do well in school. But in pursuit of these goals, sometimes we forget to show our kids that we love them them for who they are, not what they achieve.

Wallace recommends “greeting your kids at least once a day the way the family dog greets you — with total, unabashed joy.”

While we want to support kids’ independence, Wallace makes a case for also teaching kids the importance of interdependence, and that asking for and offering help are important skills, too.

As teens age, she said, parents can remain involved by maintaining healthy, open communication with their child and not assuming that risky, rebellious behaviors are inevitable.

“When parents know about bad behavior and don’t act on it, teens may see that as tacit approval. Rebellious behaviors can change how parents interact with their teens, decreasing how much energy a parent puts into monitoring their teens because they don’t expect to have a positive influence.”

But in addition to enforcing consequences for misbehavior, parents need to help teens figure things out for themselves by acting as consistent, supportive sounding boards.

“Encourage them to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with you without fear of judgment. Listen actively and respectfully to what they have to say,” Wallace said.

“Stay involved in your teen’s life by showing genuine interest in their
activities, hobbies and friendships and engaging in conversations that matter to them,” she said.

Parents should care for their own psychological needs, too.

Wallace says that, as a result of her research, she believes that “the No. 1 thing we can do to help a struggling child is to make sure the adults in that child’s life are psychologically healthy and that they have solid and reliable sources of support.”

Our own stress and anxiety, she continued, “can make us less attuned to our children’s emotional cues. The risk here is that our kids can misinterpret our stress and impatience: They internalize the belief that something must be wrong with them.”

This doesn’t mean that parents should beat themselves up about times that they snap at their child under pressure. It does mean, however, that parents should value their own mental health and take steps to care for it, whether through exercise, time with friends, support from fellow parents or therapy.

“Kids don’t need parents who take self-sacrifice to the extreme,” Wallace said. What benefits parents will benefit kids, too: “We need to invest in relationships that give us resilience so that we can be a steady support for them.”

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