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Why Teens Are Sad - And How to Help

Updated: May 2, 2022

Last week I stumbled across an article in the Atlantic titled “Why American Teens Are So Sad.” In it, author Derek Thompson, shares the “forces that are propelling the rising rates of depression among young people.” As an educator who works with middle schoolers I was curious. This has been - hands down - the hardest year on record within my youth community. I’ve been reflecting on this, and wanting to share what I’m seeing with you, parents and kids. I want to talk about this Atlantic piece, because it validates some patterns I’m seeing. The two primary factors I’ll discuss here are dynamics in digital friendships and rising rates of existential crisis/stress.

The big picture

One of the most important things that Thompson draws attention to in his piece is that rates of depression and sadness have been rising in teens across demographic populations for over a decade. This means that while the Covid19 pandemic may have accelerated or exacerbated the trend, there are underlying issues that we need to pay attention to. Because they aren’t going anywhere, even as life slowly returns to a “new normal.”

The small picture

In Artemis Pack, this year has been heavy with mental health struggles. There are about 80 kids in our program overall, with approximately 40 participants ages 11-15. Those middle and high school participants are spread out in 5 different “packs” (chapters), representing a variety of neighborhoods, schools and social groups. Our participants are predominantly white, middle class girls and non-binary kids. About 10% of our participants are Kids of Color. Another 10% lo- income. We have a high rate of LGBTQ identified participants - I can’t say exactly, but I’d guess at least 60% identify somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. In every one of our 5 middle/high school packs, I’m seeing the following issues at play.

What’s Wrong Part 1: Digital Friendships

Text, video calling, DMs, online gaming and, yes, social media, have become the primary way that many adolescents connect with friends. Take that in for a sec. THE PRIMARY WAY.

Even when there are kids who see each other in person, it is often the case that the majority of their interactions are happening digitally. They text late at night. They see each other’s pictures. They meet up to play video games in virtual spaces. They text each other while in the same room.

Thompson points out that social media is a tricky beast because it’s not always bad…or not consistently bad, anyway. He gives a simile that social media is not like rat poison, which is bad for anyone who ingests it, and bad in the same way, every time. Instead, it’s more like alcohol. Some people can consume alcohol with little negative impact. It can be moderate, responsibly used and a fun way to be social. For others, alcohol can make them sick and can be addictive. Social media can be fine for some kids. But for others - particularly those who struggle with self doubt, comparison to peers, and the need for external validation, social media can be toxic. In studies, 11-13 year old girls are particularly vulnerable to the toxic aspects of social media.

Thompson doesn’t go beyond social media, but in my witnessing of tweens/teens and digital peer spaces, social media is just one element of a constellation.

To be honest, the bigger concern for me is group chats over text. This year I’ve seen multiple situations where a group of friends text each other in a negative spiral that spins out of control. Text conversations can be impulsive and uninhibited. Teens and tweens will say things over text that they would not say to someone’s face. And when a text spiral gets really bad, there can be hundreds of texts coming in within a 24 hour period. A total recipe for overwhelm.

And yet…I say this as a mom and as a mentor to teens: do not take their phones away. I know it may seem like the answer, but with a few important exceptions, trying to live an analogue life as a modern teen is not going to make it better. So what will?

What Helps?

#1. More time in person

Help them spend more time in person with peers. It’s about to be summer! Unless we’re intentional, this could be an isolating time for adolescents. Let’s keep that from happening. Your tween wants a sleepover? Invite their friend over for the whole weekend. Going to the beach? Help your teen find a buddy to bring along. Don’t be surprised if they resist. Over the pandemic many kids got used to isolation with the companionship of digital connection. Reweaving the web of in-person connections may take time, but will help them feel solid. These in person times have their own challenges, but the challenges are slower, easier to keep up with, and less likely to leave your kid feeling panic or confusion. In person friendships create balance and perspective that make digital friendships easier to compartmentalize.

Thompson points out that the problem with social media (or digital friendships) is not actual social media itself, but the activities it replaces. Kids are spending less time outdoors, less time in extracurricular activities, and less time in person with peers. I personally believe that it’s the unstructured time with friends that are kids are really craving, whether they realize it or not. So let’s help them get more of that.

#2 Help Teens Develop Self-Regulation

Helping teens and tweens develop self-regulation and limits with digital relationships is a life skill. If talking all night becomes a habit, it can have negative effects on sleep, mood, anxiety and the quality of the friendships involved. Help your kid give themselves a cut off time to stop texting at night, and have them share that cut off time with friends.

#3 Parental Intervention

Sometimes parental intervention is necessary. When digital friendships get hard, messy or all-cosuming, teens don’t always know how to step back. This year, I’ve seen parents model healthy interventions by

  • Reaching out to the parents of the other kids in a text thread, and working together to bring a difficult text thread to an end

  • Deleting an app for a week

  • Helping coordinate face-to-face conversations

  • Creating rules that require phone breaks/device-free times of day/night when a teen is having a hard time setting limits for themselves

  • Seeking outside help when needed (from school administration, therapists, etc)

#4 Look for moderated/structured online spaces

Adolescents are going to spend time in digital spaces. But not all spaces are the same. Finding moderated spaces with peers who share the same interests improves the quality of time spent. If you are looking for summer options, check out Out School or join us at Artemis Pack for Teen Witching Hour!

What’s Wrong Part 2: Existential Crisis

The world is stressful and teens and tweens are increasingly aware of it. In Artemis Pack, middle schoolers tell me of their alarm about climate crisis, racism in their schools and in the country, fears about gun violence, policing, political attacks on LGBTQ youth and more. Right now, the war in Ukraine is front and center.

On one hand, it’s inspiring to see youth paying attention and caring about these big issues. I am often struck by their conviction and compassion. The problem is, this awareness creates a pervasive anxiety about the world today and in the future. Apocalyptic thinking erodes hope.

Picking up on Adult Stress

In addition to the weights of the world, teens and tweens are picking up the stress they notice in adults. In so many industries and sectors of the workforce, adults are experiencing burnout and isolation. If you ask a teen what they want to be when they grow up, they are probably looking around at the options and thinking…. “Um, I want NONE OF THESE.”

I’ve also noticed this year there’s been a distinct uptick in young people saying “I never want to have kids.” While I celebrate this as a liberating departure from the assumption that everyone wants kids someday, I also wonder how much this is a response to the massive stress parents have been under during the Covid19 pandemic.

What Helps?

#1 Take a break from mainstream news outlets.

The habit of “doom scrolling” leads us to absorb a constant cycle of violence and fear. This summer, be intentional as a family about taking a big break from the news. It will still be there when you get back, and taking a break will help your nervous system slow down.

#2 Seek out positive news.

Hearing about the good things, the solutions, the possibilities that are out there has major restorative benefits. I like YES! Magazine, and I know there are many others.

#3: Take Action

One of the best cures for stress is to feel agency in a place where you have felt powerless. Use your new awareness of positive news to help you take action about something you care about. Knowing you are adding energy to an effort that already has momentum can feel like a huge relief.

#4 Dream about the near future together.

Adulthood may seem stressful, but what about two years from now? What might it be like to turn 16? What would be the most amazing thing to do the summer after you graduate high school? Having things to look forward to that are within reach makes the future feel less daunting.

Remember Resilience

The upward trend of teen anxiety and depression is a source of major concern for me, as a mentor, friend and parent. But as I sit with my groups of laughing, silly, creative, thoughtful, teens, I remember that they are resilient. When the sources of stress in their lives are reduced or quieted, they thrive.

I’m thinking of my camp last summer. We took small groups of kids out for adventures in nature. There was very little structure and very little cell phone access. So they splashed around in creeks, built forts and fairy houses, gave each other piggy back rides, and acted like the kids they are. The best cure for the heaviness kids are dealing with is time, rest, and connection.

If time outdoors and in person isn’t possible, look for those structured online spaces that cultivate your child’s imagination and interests. Even older kids may be surprised by how much better it feels to be in a digital space that feels safe and fun.

I believe in the power of summer! Let’s do what we can to help tweens and teens revitalize their spirits this summer. We all need it.

Tara Rubinstein is a is a writer, educator and mother. She has created and/or supervised programs for adolescents that support LGBTQ identity, drag performance; spirituality, anti-racism, mythology and magic, community building, sexual wellness and body positivity. She also teaches feminist, earth-based spirituality classes for adults. This blog was written about members of Artemis Pack, which Tara affectionately describes as "goddess girl scouts" for 8-16 year olds.

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