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Adolescent anxiety is on the rise, and social media may be part of the problem

Detroit Lakes High School students check their phones during a break. Teens in the U.S. spend an average of nine hours a day using media, most of that digital media. Marie Johnson / Tribune

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series examining anxiety in today's youth, with a particular focus on the role that smartphones and social media might play in that. This first installment reviews the issue as a whole, presenting basic information and statistics on the topic. The second installment will relay the thoughts and first-hand experiences of local high school students. The third and final installment will look beyond the high school to find out how anxiety impacts even younger students at the middle and elementary schools.

Madison Hagen used to send 200 to 300 texts a day, easy.

The Detroit Lakes High School senior would spend hours on her smartphone during school, checking it constantly for any new notifications on her Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram accounts, and then go home at night and do the same thing, except there she'd also add Netflix and YouTube videos into the mix.

All that time spent in front of a screen cut into every other aspect of her life. It took time away from her family, served as a substitute for real-life interactions with her friends, and distracted her from her schoolwork. While Hagen is among the top students of her class today, at the peak of her phone fixation she was barely hanging on to 'average student' status.

"I was a constant offender of being on my cell phone during class," she admitted during a recent interview. "My mom helped me manage that, and my grades went from Cs to As and Bs."

Hagen said her attention had gotten so divided that she couldn't focus on what she was supposed to be doing in class, let alone learn what she was supposed to be learning. She was too distracted by her phone to pay full attention to her teachers. If her phone was lighting up, she was looking at it. If it wasn't, she was worrying about why it wasn't.

"I get anxiety about what everybody else is thinking of me," she said. "I worry about, 'Did I say the right thing? Was it bad? Is everybody interpreting it the right way?'"

Eventually Hagen realized her cell phone had become a bad habit, and she made the decision to make a change. She cut way back on her screen time, especially while at school, and put more energy back into her studies. It didn't take long for her grades to start improving.

Even after cutting back, Hagen spends three to four hours a day on her phone. If that sounds like a lot, it's not—at least not compared to her peers nationwide. According to a 2015 Common Sense Media study, teens in the U.S. spend nearly nine hours a day using media, most of that digital media. And that was three years ago. It's likely more now.

In Detroit Lakes, at least among the five high school students interviewed for this story, the norm is under that national average, at around 4 to 5 hours a day. But even those students—juniors and seniors considered leaders at the school; good students who are self-aware enough to keep themselves in check—say there are days they spend 8 hours or more using some sort of digital media.

This phenomenon of digital consumption is new to their generation, and the effects of it have yet to be thoroughly studied and aren't yet well understood. In the meantime, the kids are left largely to their own devices, pun intended.

It's only been within the past year or two that researchers have started raising some official red flags about excessive smartphone and social media use by teens, as new studies reveal possible connections between that and some concerning upward trends in teen depression, anxiety and suicide rates. Anxiety, in particular, is emerging as enemy No. 1 in this new national conversation.

Anxiety on the rise

All teens experience some level of anxiety at times; that's nothing new or unusual. Peer pressure and the everyday stresses of school and family life are familiar, common problems that teens have faced for ages.

What's alarming today is the striking rate at which anxiety is on the rise among teens, both in terms of how many teens report feeling anxious, and in the deepening levels of their reported anxiety.

Over the past decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason students seek mental health treatment. Nearly a full third of adolescents are affected by anxiety, and the numbers keep going up.

An extensive report on teen anxiety published in The New York Times Magazine in Oct. 2017 states that high school administrators across the country "increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students."

School counselors at Detroit Lakes High School, as well as a local psychologist, confirm that this national trend is reflected here at home.

"Definitely anxiety is on the rise," said Sara Pender, one of the three counselors at DLHS. She, along with her colleagues, Karla Cummings and Doreen Richter, said an increasing number of students are coming to talk to them about anxiety.

Wanda Dahlen, a licensed psychologist at Lakeland Mental Health Center in Detroit Lakes, said she's seen the rise not just among high schoolers, but also college students, especially college freshman and sophomores. Again, that reflects a national trend.

In 2016, The American College Health Association said 62 percent of college undergraduates reported having "overwhelming anxiety," up from 50 percent just five years earlier. Also in 2016, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA reported that the percentage of college freshman feeling overwhelmed had more than doubled in the past 30 years, from 18 percent in 1985 to 41 percent at the time of the study.

Depression and suicide, which often go hand-in-hand with anxiety in teens, are also on the rise, with hospital admissions for suicidal teens doubling over the past 10 years.

What's behind it?

No one knows for sure, but most experts attribute it to a combination of factors, old and new.

Family conflicts, academic and peer pressure, and fears of the unknown (such as life after high school) have long been main ingredients in the toxic soup of teen anxiety.

Newly added to the pot is digital media, an ingredient that has the potential to enhance and enrich teens' lives, but that can also complicate and amplify their fears with its ironic mix of public platforms and anonymous echo chambers.

It's this tricky new ingredient, some researchers suspect, that's causing the soup to boil over today.

"Kids today are overextended, and a lot of students come in and say they don't know how to manage," said Cummings. "They don't feel like they have any downtime."

Whatever "downtime" they do have is often spent glued to a screen, which doesn't really qualify. Constantly texting and keeping tabs on social media doesn't give teens a real mental break.

"They're always hyperconnected," said Dahlen. "They're never really alone or...can just relax on their own. That can lead to feeling emotionally depleted, which can contribute to anxiety."

Other contributing factors, according to Dahlen and the school counselors, include:

• False representation. Social media allows teens to present only the best versions of themselves, and don't necessarily reflect the lower points of their everyday lives. This paints a false picture that other teens then judge themselves against. Teens see the 'perfect' online postings of their peers and feel like their own lives don't measure up.

• A lack of face-to-face interaction. Teens communicate with each other so much through texting and social media that they aren't developing direct communication skills at the level they should be. That leads to social anxiety when they do have to interact with people face-to-face.

• The illusion of control. Smartphones and apps allows teens to operate within their own chosen, narrow preferences, and to excessively plan. They can look up restaurant reviews and read the menu online before trying a new spot, for example, and they can use a map app to find their way there. They can even check to see if anyone they know is already there dining. There are plenty of advantages to this, but teens are losing the ability to tolerate uncertainty, and aren't developing the coping skills and resiliency they need to handle unfamiliar situations or life setbacks.

• The addicting quality of social approval. Social media platforms manipulate the brain by hijacking its pleasure centers, giving users a digital 'high' with every positive response they get online and making them want to return again and again to seek more of the same. When that approval stops coming, for whatever reason—"Why didn't my post get any 'likes?!'" or "Why wasn't I invited to that party?"—it leads to feelings of self-doubt, low self-esteem and anxiety.

• Cyber-bullying. People feel empowered to say hurtful things online that they'd never say to someone's face, and that creates anxiety for the target/victim.


Stats and studies

• Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults (National Institute of Mental Health)

• The rate of teen anxiety and suicide has been rising over the past decade (Psychology Today)

• Anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason students seek mental health treatment (Psychology Today)

• Teens ages 13-18 who spend more time on smartphones and social media report more mental health issues than those who spent more time on face-to-face interactions like sports and religious services (2017 San Diego State University study led by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology)

• 62 percent of college undergraduates reported having overwhelming anxiety in 2016, up 50 percent from just five years earlier (The American College Health Association)

• The percentage of college freshman feeling overwhelmed has more than doubled since 1985, from 18 percent then to 41 percent in 2016 (Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA)

• Increased screen time might be linked to the increase, between 2010 and 2015, in depressive symptoms and suicide among teenage girls (Clinical Psychological Science).

• Hospital admissions for suicidal teens have doubled over the past 10 years

• Anxiety disorders in teens often go hand-in-hand with other mental health issues, such as depression, ADHD, eating disorders and substance abuse

Triggers: Common causes of anxiety in teens

• Family conflicts: Abuse/arguing/tensions/parental pressure/divorce/helicopter parenting/death or illness of a loved one/sudden move to a new area

• Academic pressure: Large homework loads/fear of not meeting parent or teacher expectations/getting into college

• Peer pressure: Bullying/feeling like they're not measuring up/feeling excluded or isolated/body image issues

• The future: Fear of the unknown/feeling unprepared or unable to cope

• Bad news: Terrorism/disease/unhealthy eating/climate change/other frightening headlines as seen in the news

Signs and symptoms of teen anxiety

• Low self-esteem

• Easily and often fatigued

• Irritable

• Physical symptoms: Headaches/migraines/stomach aches/hives/sweating/nausea/nightmares/dizziness

• Poor performance in school/attendance issues or even dropping out

• Behavioral problems

• Substance use and abuse

• Cutting or other forms of self-harm

• Panic attacks

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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