Feelings of anxiety, often triggered by insecurities and the pressure to fit in, have always been a part of the adolescent experience, but today’s teens and tweens report a much more intense relationship with anxiety than previous generations. Most experts agree that social media is having a significant effect on the rising clinical symptoms of anxiety, but how can a parent tell the difference between normal anxiety and what is considered an anxiety disorder, requiring a clinical intervention?
Is There A Link Between Anxiety and Social Media?
Since the introduction of smartphones and social media, teens have been measuring their worth and self-confidence on the number of shares and likes they get on their posts. Not getting many likes on social media leaves many kids wondering if there is something wrong with them, or if they are ‘less than’ their peers. As an adult, have you ever had that anxious feeling if nobody ‘liked’ your post? Imagine dealing with that as a teen or tween?
In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase of undergraduates who reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. In 2011, 50 percent reported feeling intense levels of anxiety as compared with 62 percent in 2016. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year.
In 1985, 18 percent said yes, and by 2016 that number increased to 41 percent.
Some may argue that we are simply more aware of mental health issues and that there is less shame for kids to actually admit how they feel. But the dramatic rise in those reporting severe mental health symptoms coupled with the fact that admissions at children’s psychiatric hospitals all over the country have doubled, suggest the cause is likely more than just an increase in awareness. In fact, the research suggests that this generation is experiencing a mental health crisis unlike any previous generation of youth.
Unlike depression, anxiety is easier to disregard or overlook for a couple of reasons. Since everyone experiences it to some degree, parents are more likely to brush it off as just something kids need to learn how to deal with. Also, the symptoms of anxiety are often less visible than other mental health conditions, so an accurate diagnosis relies more heavily on the subjective report from a child, making it more difficult to accurately measure the severity.
Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the United States and approximately 35 percent of all teenagers are clinically diagnosed with some form of anxiety.
What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
Generalized anxiety disorder is marked by excessive anxiety and worry occurring more days than not for at least 6 months. The anxiety must be associated with at least three of the six following symptoms;
- Restlessness, feeling keyed up or on edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
- Muscle tension
- Sleep disturbance, difficulty falling or staying asleep
As a therapist, I meet with teens and tweens every day and when it comes to anxiety, there are 2 consistent themes kids point to as triggers;
- Comparing themselves to their peers based, not on the reality, but rather on the depiction of reality on social media.
- The pressure to keep up and FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. Despite the fact that most kids agree that the constant need to check social media creates anxiety, FOMA, or the Fear Of Missing Out, is so powerful that they are more likely to give into the urge to check than to choose what they know would be healthier, putting down the phone.
How Can Parents Help Their Child With Anxiety?
Anxiety is marked by the desire to avoid situations that create discomfort, yet the solution to anxiety is to face situations which create discomfort. Too often, the parents I meet with miss the mark by allowing their child to avoid those situations that trigger anxiety. Parents are more helpful when they set clear expectations, offer coping skills, and engage in problem-solving strategies with their child.
It is a parents job to teach kids how to tolerate uncertainty because it is only in learning to cope with life’s difficulties that resilience can emerge. Enabling our kids, protecting them from the hard things, or giving in to their anxieties only reinforces their fears and insecurities.
If your child is exhibiting symptoms of anxiety that are interfering with their developmental tasks and responsibilities, then it might be time to check in with the pediatrician or to find a qualified mental health professional. If left untreated, anxiety disorders can get worse, and teens in my practice who are using drugs and alcohol, often present with undiagnosed anxiety disorders. So check in with your child, get a feel for where they are emotionally, and be sure you are getting alerts sent to your smartphone that could point to a mental health issue.
Kids are likely to talk about feelings of anxiety and depression with their friends, and when it is severe enough, as parents, you need to know. Social Judo will send you real-time alerts which will give you the parenting moment that your child might need.
Andrea Difilippo a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, nationally recognized parenting expert and Chief Parenting Officer with Social Judo.