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Depression And Technology Addiction: A New Reality?

“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away.”

Award winning comedian, Louis C.K., recently announced why he doesn’t let his two young daughters have smartphones. Speaking in a jocular tone, Mr. C.K. raises an issue that has behavioral health researchers and parents worried, as no one knows more about living in the zeroes and ones of binary code better than today’s tweens, teens and young adults.

The wired world they live in is compounded by:

  • a hyper-surveillant post-9/11 society
  • a blurry economic future
  • school shootings
  • global conflicts

…and a recent political knife fight marked by the most brash language ever seen in the American political sphere.

Teens Are Struggling With Addiction

It’s no wonder teens are struggling with anxiety and depression on historic levels. A recent Time Magazine cover story reported that 3 million teenagers experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, a jump of 37% from 2005 to 2014, and in the past two years 6.3 million teenagers have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. In total, 20% of all American adolescents struggle with depression at one point by the time they reach adulthood.

The burning question becomes: How did we get to a place where the future leaders of our country – at an age when their biggest concerns might be acing their math test, where to go out on a Friday night, or winning the soccer game – have become consumed with anxiety and depression? Smartphones are a major player in this arena and the nuances are alarming.

Anxiety Is A Part Of Normal Teen Development

For the average teen, anxiety is nothing new. Writers have documented for ages the angst of teenhood – from Catcher in the Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird to Portnoy’s Complaint. The famous behavioral healthcare thought leader, Erik Erikson, firmly documented the existential turbulence that comes with identity formation. Teens in every corner of the country – private and public school, dropout and home-school – wrestle with big identity questions like:

  • Who am I?
  • What am I going to do?
  • What career might I choose?

…as well as navigating relationships, gender identity, and finding their place in the world.

How Digital Social Circles Are Creating Tension

Though mobile devices are a central player, social scientists and experts in behavioral health are discovering it’s the digital social circles (i.e. social media, texting, likes and shares) that are causing bubbling tensions. According to Pew Research:

  • over 70% of teens aged 13 to 17 use Facebook
  • over 50% are on Instagram and Snapchat
  • 24% of all teens report they go online “almost constantly”

Though Facebook is the dominant digital social circle, Instagram and Snapchat are on the rise amongst middle and upper income teens, according to Pew’s socio-economic breakdown of data. Instagram, an app owned by tech giant Facebook, lets users create a profile of pictures for likes and shares with others. And like Instagram, Snapchat allows for instantaneous positive or negative responses.

These apps lets teens be inclusive with posts and tags, however, the downside is the ability to poke fun and exclude from groups and social hangouts. Teens come and go in these digital social circles so fast that it is a challenge to know where one stands with their peers.

Another feature on these social media apps are posting and exchanging pictures. While these may seem harmless, the pictures snapped and filtered in the solitude of bedrooms or amongst friends creates great risks because pictures carry meaning. As the saying goes – a picture speaks a thousand words – and for teens struggling to fit in, what’s said with pictures has become a pricey new social currency.

Barometers Of Popularity

Rachel Simmons, educator and author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, writes about how apps like Instagram and Snapchat have evolved into barometers of popularity and social status.

“Look closely and you find the Rosetta Stone of girl angst,” writes Simmons, adding that it’s “a way for tweens and teens to find out what their peers really think of them.”

Girls, in particular, turn to a platform like Instagram to find validation because when they enter into adolescence, research shows their confidence takes a nosedive. Rather than finding the feeling of belonging at the mall or at school, teen girls exchange social currency — likes, shares, pictures, follows and comments — on their phones. And if likability is at stake, Simmons research underlies the ways girls use social media apps like Instagram and Facebook as self-promotion that overplays qualities like fun and social at the expense of intelligence and kindness.

In other words, it’s the “dumb blonde” or “I am pretty and cute” syndrome girls feel trapped into being on social media to find friends, fit in, and maybe even catch a boy’s wandering eye.

No Papertrail = A Double Life?

Snapchat, however, lets users be more clandestine. The social media app that debuted in the public sector to the tune of $10 billion not long ago is attracting teens in droves because of its novel feature — posts vanish on the snap of a finger so there’s no digital papertrail.

With this in mind, it’s difficult for parents to monitor their teen’s social media presence, shielding them from signs that their son or daughter is struggling. In effect, teens may be living double lives – one on social media and another at home and school. They feel pressure to create a version of their life on social media that is glamorous and exciting while demonstrating to parents that they are successful and well-adjusted.

Further, the ubiquitous nature of online culture in and out of school – delivered through smartphones and tablets (some school districts supply tablets to every student) – makes it difficult for teens to find an escape.

“It’s that [teens] are in a cauldron of stimulus they can’t get away from, or don’t want to get away from, or don’t know how to get away from,” writes Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery.

What’s more disturbing: SnapChat isn’t all that private and anonymous. According to Numbers Direct, a respected UK publication, found in November that “the Syrian Electronic Army busted through [security] walls and published a database of 4.6 million usernames and phone numbers.” That combined with the fact that this “vehicle has been mined for sexting” presents a formidable challenge to young people.

Building Psychological Problems For America’s Teens

If this sounds like garden variety angst, the new social media landscape and its residue of anxiety and stress are culminating into a psychological problem for the American teenager. According to a recent study from Ottawa Public Health reported at The Huffington Post, teens who use social media sites for two hours or more per day are significantly more likely to suffer from poor mental health, psychological distress and suicidal thoughts.

Though causality isn’t proven, the study’s lead author, Dr. Hugues Sampasa-Kanyinga, sees how influence runs both ways:

“It could be that teens with mental health problems are seeking out interactions [online] as they are feeling isolated and alone.”

In effect, teens may turn to social media to cope and find themselves compounding a complex problem.

Researchers are also seeing the rise of self-harm (cutting and bleeding) as a way for teens to express their anxiety. According to Healthy Place, each year 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males engage in some kind of self-harm activity.

Susanna Schrobsdorff, a contributor to Time Magazine, recently interviewed Faith-Ann Bishop, an eighth-grader living in Bangor, Maine, about the growing pressures of teenhood and how she describes self-harm as bringing a sense of deep relief.

“It makes the world very quiet for a few seconds. For awhile I didn’t want to stop because it was my only coping mechanism.”

The research underscores a trend toward self-harm, eclipsing anorexia and bulimia, two types of mental health disorders that were common amongst angsty teens in the nineties. And even though this is a complex issue caused by several psychological, biological, and environmental risk factors, teen depression may lead to a number of other mental-health symptoms and disorders.

How Can Parents Help Address Depression In Teens?

Though the trends amongst our youth are cause for concern, the best way to help starts with being mindful of the signs a teenager may be experiencing depression. According to the Help Guide, an online resource for behavioral health information, here are some general signs to look for:

  • Constantly feeling irritable, angry or sad.
  • Nothing seems fun anymore and you don’t see the point in trying.
  • You feel bad about yourself, like you are helpless and hopeless.
  • Your sleep schedule is off – too much or not enough.
  • You have frequent headaches or other unexplained physical problems.
  • You regularly cry.
  • Your weight fluctuates.
  • You can’t concentrate and your grades suffer.
  • You have thoughts of suicide.

If you or a fellow teen is experiencing depression, the first step is to talk to an adult you trust. Sharing one’s feelings will help you feel better. Then it’s time to take active steps that will curb depressive feelings. Exercise and physical activity release endorphins which combat negative thoughts and feelings. You should also limit your social media usage and don’t rely on drugs and alcohol to escape the negative feelings as they make depression worse. Finally, get plenty of rest.

Vaidating A Teen’s Feelings Is Crucial

For parents, Fadi Haddad, a psychiatrist and co-author of Helping Kids in Crisis, suggests ways parents can help their child struggling with a mental health issue from anxiety and depression. Haddad says it starts with validating their teenage son or daughter’s feelings.

Too often, mental health issues are stigmatized in our social climates. Stripping away judgment and underscoring validation, parents are encouraged to not only talk to their children about sports and grades, but also about the real stuff that teens deal with in a new social terrain completely foreign to their parent’s generation. Here are some more tips for parents to help their teenaged son or daughter who is experiencing depression:

  1. Watch for the red flags discussed above.
  2. Find quality time each day for face-to-face communication.
  3. Focus on listening (and avoid lecturing).
  4. Encourage your son or daughter to spend time with friends and family.
  5. Encourage plenty of sleep and exercise.

Haddad also suggests finding counseling for the whole family. Often times when a teen is in crisis, it takes a change within the family dynamic to heal wounds. And the solidarity of family standing together will teach your child they’re not alone – the antidote to reaching for their cellphone.

Reference Sources: For a look at Time Magazine’s recent cover story on teen depression, visit Time’s website here.
For more about teen girls and Instragram, visit Rachel Simmons’ article here.
To learn more about Rachel Simmons and her research on adolescent girls, visit her website here.
For more research from Pew Research Center’s study on teens and digital media usage, visit their website here.
For more teen depression facts, visit MedicineNet here.
For a look at the study linking teen depression to social media, visit The Huffington Post article here.
For a look at self-harm facts and information, visit Healthy Place here.
For a teenager’s guide to depression, visit the Help Guide website here.
For a look at writer Andrew Sullivan’s experiences giving up his digital life, read his story here.
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