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Opinion | Teenagers Report Growing Anxiety. Maybe That’s Rational.

First, let’s be clear that the pandemic cratered a lot of people’s mental health, regardless of age, and there’s so much else going on in society right now, including inflation, gun violence and the war in Ukraine, causing people profound upset. The American Psychological Association has been conducting its “Stress in America” survey since 2007, and this year found that “Money stress registered at the highest recorded level since 2015.”

As The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan explained in a good article about why people are acting so weird right now, everybody is extremely overwhelmed, and it’s causing lots of adults to behave in uncivil ways on airplanes, in school board meetings and even at the Oscars. Watching adults fall apart probably isn’t helping teenagers cope with life, nor are a lot of other recent stressors. As Erin Anhalt, the mother of a 15-year-old girl in Maryland, put it to me on Twitter, her daughter says “she watched half the adults throw a fit about wearing a mask during a pandemic, they’re watching climate change play out rapidly, feels like no chance at an education without crippling debt, etc… of course they are anxious.”

Life has always been hard, and being a teenager has always been hard. Being a teenager with abusive parents, or one who is food insecure, has always been particularly hard.

So I do wonder if another reason for the uptick in teens saying they’re depressed and anxious is that they have the language for it now, and that there’s so much less stigma to admitting these feelings than there was even when I was a kid — which is something psychologists and psychiatrists I have interviewed for previous newsletters have pointed out. This would be difficult to demonstrate with a study, since we don’t have a time machine to go back and interview teens in 1992 to ask them about their knowledge of, attitudes about and exposure to mental health issues.

In any case, we should pay close attention to the fact that teens are reporting such high levels of stress. So many of them are still reeling from the worst moments in the pandemic and the feelings of isolation and disconnection that they experienced. And I do think we should all be mindful of the ways our kids are interacting with social media, and how it’s making them feel. In The Times, Virginia Hughes reported on a new study about social media use:

Analyzing survey responses of more than 84,000 people of all ages in Britain, the researchers identified two distinct periods of adolescence when heavy use of social media spurred lower ratings of “life satisfaction”: first around puberty — ages 11 to 13 for girls, and 14 to 15 for boys — and then again for both sexes around age 19.

It’s this kind of nuanced, specific information that I find most helpful in figuring out boundaries around social media use for my own two girls. I was contemplating allowing my older daughter to get a smartphone at the beginning of middle school, but information like this makes me reconsider. Perhaps we will opt for a “dumb phone” without internet capabilities, or a smart watch with limited functionality instead, if we feel she must get some kind of tech to keep in contact.

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