The Deteriorating Mental Health of Today’s Kids
Avoiding the Traps that Lead to Anguish
David R Smith and Jonathan McKee
Seeing headlines about teens and mental health issues is like seeing political ads: they’re everywhere. Just last week, two more articles came out highlighting the growing problem of young people’s poor mental health. The first one focused on kids who were incarcerated.
The second one focused on kids who…wait for it…use lots of social media….
In an article entitled Incarcerated Teens Struggle With Higher Rates of Mental Health Issues, researchers looked at the well-documented studies from across the past two decades that underscore the prevalence of mental health issues among young people in correctional facilities compared to their peers who’ve never been locked up. On any given day, there are roughly 50,000 young people inside some sort of correctional facility in the US and many of them suffer with at least one mental health issue such as anxiety, attention deficit disorder, or depression. Of course, a fair question arises: “Was jail the cause of these kids’ mental health issues…or just the result?” Regardless of the answer, the seriousness of the problem can’t be ignored.
Assuming we can steer our kids away from incarceration more often than not, let’s talk about the second article that emerged last week which focused on the thousands of young people using social media to the detriment of their mental health. Studying a number of reports on American teens from the past decade, Canadian researchers concluded “More Evidence Links Social Media Use to Poorer Mental Health in Teens.”
The article uses the words “more evidence” because researches have been noticing the link between screen time, social media and poor mental health for a few years now. Some experts, like Dr. Jean Twenge, out of San Diego State University, have been imploring us all to stop debating about this and just start protecting young people (and we’ve written articles helping parents understand how to actually do that).
This brand-new study from Canada cements the understanding of this reality and echoes the need to decrease the harmful effects of smartphones and social media specifically. The study cites the fact that roughly 89% of American kids between the ages of 13 and 17 now have a smartphone and a whopping 70% of them engage with others through social media multiple times per day, the researchers analyzed various data related to mental health across the matching time span when smartphone and social media use escalated. Here are a couple highlights…or lowlights:
- The number of kids seeking medical attention at hospitals due to suicidal thoughts or attempts almost doubled between 2008 and 2015.
- Overdose rates for kids between the ages of 10 and 18 reversed their previous decline and “increased substantially” between 2011 and 2018.
Social media use seems to be taking its toll on the minds (and hearts) of young people. The findings led Dr. Elia Abi-Jaoude, the study’s author, to say, “Physicians, teachers and families need to work together with youth to decrease possible harmful effects of smartphones and social media on their relationships, sense of self, sleep, academic performance, and emotional well-being.”
Yes, but what does that look like, exactly?
Easing the Burden
I’ll be among the first to admit that being a teenager these days isn’t easy. Just this past weekend, I (David) was speaking at a weekend retreat in the New York area where I was able to engage high school students from a Christian perspective. Throughout the sessions, meal times, and activities, I was frequently approached by students who wanted to talk about their inner struggles, near-constant anxieties, and past failures. Even their youth leaders, adults who’ve been trained to positively impact teenagers, had questions about what could be done to counter the wave of mental health issues now facing today’s youngest generation. These issues now dominate our conversations.
Without a doubt, there are tremendous professional resources available in the way of counseling and various medications. But can parents and youth workers make a difference, too? Absolutely! Here are some very simple, very practical, and very effective strategies.
- Spend quality time with your kids. Our experiences have shown that, with a few exceptions here and there, the parents who spend the most quality time with their kids have the healthiest kids. Don’t underestimate the power of simple, everyday connection moments where you hang out together doing life. Yes, that might sound like “quantity time.” That’s because you don’t always know when “quality time” will happen, so aim for “quantity time” and let the chips fall where they may. My rural friends remind me of an ironic reality, “Crops grow best in the farmer’s shadow.” The same is true for kids. Let’s stick close to them through these crucial years.
- Set boundaries on social media use. There are plenty of reasons why it’s not good for kids to spend hour after hour scrolling through social media feeds. First, it’s time consuming. It unnecessarily eats up the clock and prevents more important things from happening. Second, it’s too often filled with unrealistic representations of others’ lives that our kids compare themselves to. (What? Your perfectly tanned, 2% body fat, swimsuit-clad family won’t be spending Spring Break on the French beaches of Corsica? Exactly….) Third, and most regrettably, social media is where the lion share of cyber-bullying takes place. When it comes to helping your kids manage their social media, you might want to think in terms of sensible screen limits (as in how much each day) or location restrictions (such as family dinners or bedrooms) or which platforms can be used in general. Whatever you do, set some agreed-upon boundaries in place and then hold your kids accountable to them.
- Teach (and model) grit. No, I’m not talking about My Cousin Vinny’s breakfast staple…I’m talking about a person’s ability to roll with the punches of life. We need to be able to give instruction to our kids about how to be mentally tough and psychologically resilient…and they need to see the same at play in our lives. Among other things, this means talking with your kids about healthy ways to handle the inevitable failures of life. But it also includes being mindful of how you react to bad news and setbacks in your own life, whether it’s heavy traffic, upsetting antics of politicians, financial constraints…and even some of the surprises your own kids might throw at you. Give your kids practical ways to handle the stressors of life and give them an example to follow!
Hopefully, these ideas can serve to help your kids develop a strong, healthy, and balanced view of self while avoiding the pitfalls of poor mental health. However you decide to act, do everything you can to fight for your kids’ wellbeing. The impact may well be felt across the coming years of their lives.
David R. Smith
David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for parents on his website TheSource4Parents.com. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.