Anxiety in Teens: Social Media’s Role, Social Anxiety, & How to Help Them
Our teens are stressed, and who can blame them? Puberty, peer pressure, social media, extracurriculars, hobbies, and a personal life leave little leftover for themselves. So, it’s not uncommon to see signs of anxiety in our teens, but how much is too much?
You, likely the concerned parent reading this, often have to balance your role between protector and supporter, and you have a lot of stuff going on, too. But through the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve noticed a change in your child.
They may be spending more and more time on social media or have developed a sort of fear around people, often referred to as social anxiety. Though both of these subjects are often joked about, they can have severe repercussions on your teen’s development as a person.
And let’s not forget that over the last year, your family has been on a rollercoaster (to say the least) as all this time away from “normalcy” may be taking a toll on your kid’s mental health. So conversely, getting back out there may be just as scary.
As a parent, it’s only natural to want your teen to thrive in all areas of life. Yet, dealing with anxiety can be a huge hurdle to clear. Thankfully, with all of the modern research and current understanding of anxiety in teens, you can help your child get through this and get back to living.
When does anxiety in my teen become something to worry about?
As a parent, you never want to see your children unhappy, ever. Yet, you know that if you step in and remove every stressor in their lives (as if this were possible), they won’t be able to grow and cope with challenges they might face later when you are unable to swoop in and save the day. Still, knowing when normal anxiety is becoming a problem in their lives can be hard to tell.
Even infrequently occurring anxiety can cause symptoms like nausea and headaches or stomach pains. All of which can be debilitating when a big test is coming up. Think about it, have you ever gotten a stress headache or had an upset stomach when some huge deadline was coming? Same thing.
And remember, an isolated incident is not necessarily a sign of something more serious. We all get stressed from time to time.
Parents should start to worry when they notice anxiety causes extreme distress or occurs outside typical emotional responses. That worry fills them constantly and debilitates their ability to handle themselves in general everyday life situations. They build up a mountain in front of anything they are necessarily comfortable or familiar with.
Anxiety in Teens: An Epidemic
In 2011, 50 percent of teens reported feeling “overwhelming” anxiety. Unfortunately, that number rose to 62 percent by 2016 — with no decrease in sight. With that in mind, it’s becoming increasingly important for our teens to practice anxiety management.
Why is this so bad? Well, the answer is relatively simple. We ask a lot of kids while having this idea on society that we don’t ask enough. Both can be true, but if you consider the type of responsibilities teens face today are much different than they were any number of years ago.
Consider the following causes of anxiety in teens and why it’s on the rise.
Today, they’re bombarded with information from all corners of planet earth, what everyone is up to 24/7, the fast-paced cyber world of social media, and beyond. At the very least, this is a major distraction and more information about more people than you would have ever met or possibly even seen a generation or two ago.
The Rise of Social Media
Who could’ve ever imagined how intensely today’s youth would crave likes, shares, and re-tweets? Social media has altered the landscape in unfathomable, perhaps permanent ways.
Imagine it. Scrolling on ANY of the platforms widely used today can mean we are interacting with thousands of people in a matter of minutes. You have likely done it yourself, and it’s very, very overwhelming at times.
Free and Steady Access to Internet Pornography
This is a parallel — and very much related — epidemic. Easy access to pornography is replacing sex education for many kids. The result is a corrupt and dangerous perception of intimacy and sexuality.
It’s like believing that what you see in TV shows and movies is reality and that there aren’t thousands, if not, millions of dollars spent on production, lighting, make-up, and scripts. It’s not real.
Under-Developed Social and Emotional Skills
Humans learn more than we may ever know from steady, face-to-face interactions. But, unfortunately, all this tweeting and texting has left kids without invaluable and irreplaceable social skills, which turns every personal interaction into a source of dread.
It also makes them, in general, more complex. Eye contact, for example, can seem intimidating when you have a little social experience off of a device.
The “Happiness” Trap
Thanks to our smartphones, we get a warped image of how everyone else looks, feels, and lives. Again, a lot of it is curated and undoubtedly not genuine. Every person is dealing with their own set of issues, no matter how spotless their life looks.
The result is pressure to perform on a personal level like never before. You used to not see behind closed doors, and now you do. As a result, we often feel the need to compete with images and never feel adequate, which is a recipe for deep-seated anxiety and depression.
None of these things are going away. On the contrary, social media usage and reach are continuously growing, and it’s becoming more and more solidified in the average person’s life as a resource and, arguably, a necessity.
And with as active as teens are on these kinds of platforms, it’s no wonder there are some adverse effects on mental health and well-being. But, of course, another issue is the newness of it all.
How Your Teen’s Attention is Being Hijacked
Research has taught us a lot about social media usage. But, oftentimes, it’s not very good news, especially concerning our kids.
Before breaking down some of the recent discoveries, let’s never forget that there was plenty of anxiety in teens long before the appearance of cell phone culture and, specifically, social media. Some of the factors that have distracted a teen’s attention then (and now) include:
- Irregular sleep patterns
- Lack of activity or over-activity via sports, exercise, etc.
- Unhealthy nutritional habits
- General stress
- Challenging family issues
These — and other — aspects of teen life remain issues that must be monitored and addressed. In addition, over the past decade or so, teenagers (and their parents) must deal with a rapid-fire world that requires smartphones, social media, and involved online life. Some numbers to chew on from a recent Pew Research Center study:
- U.S. teens are very self-concerned about their phone use. Fifty-two percent of them have now begun taking steps to cut back. Fifty-seven percent are aiming to limit social media usage. Fifty-eight percent feel the need to reduce their video game time.
- Fifty-seven percent of parents are now setting screen time restrictions for their anxious teen. However, 36 percent of those same parents own up to their own high screen time, which is reflected in 51 teens reporting that their parent or caregiver is distracted by a device — even when the teen needs their attention.
- Seventy-two percent of teens report checking for messages or notifications as the first thing they do upon waking each morning.
The Cost of Being an Anxious Teen
Studies show that teens are increasingly attached to their phones. Also, studies show that fifty-six percent of teens associate a negative emotion with the absence of their phone. Here’s a breakdown of those reported emotions:
- 25 percent feel lonely
- 24 percent feel upset
- 42 percent feel anxious without their phone nearby
- Excessive worry
- Social anxiety/Avoiding social situations
- Digestive issues (nausea, indigestion, constipation, etc.)
- Sweating, shaky hands, and shaky voice
- Headaches and other body aches
Anxiety is difficult to deal with as an adult, but it is magnified as a teen and often is paired with depression. Letting these issues continue unaddressed can hinder their personal life, career and future success, and even their children.
It can have a much greater cost than just some less than excellent grades at school.
10 Ways to Help Anxiety in Teens
As mentioned above, teen anxiety has been around for a long time. Thus, it helps to get your child back to basics when it comes to daily self-care, e.g.
- Healthy eating habits
- Regular sleep patterns
- Daily activity and exercise
- Relaxation techniques and stress management, such as meditation
- Doing things they enjoy for the sake of enjoying it
Self-care is defined as “a proactive, holistic, and personalized approach to the promotion of health and wellbeing through a variety of strategies, in both personal and professional settings” by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Depending on your background, you may just see “self-care” as a fad, but, we assure you, it’s not. There is scientific evidence backing up the need for this practice in all of our lives, whether you are a teen or not. Furthermore, it has overwhelming evidence proving the benefits of simply taking a bit of time each day to fill your cup.
2. Screen Restrictions
Generally, this becomes the primary approach because every single child needs a solid face-to-face life. It’s how they learn about themselves. Also, it’s how they know to be a healthy part of a community. Initially, this could be a tug-of-war, but you and your teen must negotiate some new rules for device usage.
Fourteen hours of screen time is not going to help them navigate adulthood, we promise.
There is often resistance when you are establishing new boundaries, but it’s worth working through. Opening up that extra time provides your child with the opportunity to explore their interests beyond a device. It also creates space for their imagination to grow.
3. Replacement Activities & Cultivate Physical Interests
Our bodies have evolved to move, to run, to climb, and to stay active. Getting up and moving has a powerful triple impact. First, it increases physical and mental fitness. It also serves as a balance to all that sedentary time spent on our devices. In addition, physical activity (sports, exercise, etc.) almost always involves face-to-face contact with others.
And as research shows, a teen may feel lost without their phone. Thus, it becomes vital to help them find new ways to enjoy their lives.
The key idea here is something they enjoy. Pushing them to try something new like a piano when all they want to do is draw is often counterproductive. Giving them the freedom of choice will go a long way is key in helping them put down the phone.
4. Healthy Communication, Even Playing Detective
Commonly, getting most teens to accept the above three tips requires healthy, respectful communication. Commit to this goal as a process, not a destination. Be a compassionate and understanding listener even when setting firm boundaries.
Here exercise you can do with your teen to figure out if they are experiencing anxiety or worry. First, across the top of a sheet of paper, ask your teen to list the top three or four things they feel are making them anxious. Then, underneath each one, write a column of why he feels they should be worried about this.
Doing this can help collect thoughts and identify ways to solve problems instead of letting worries take over the brain’s ability to develop productive solutions. Even better, this will likely reveal some commonalities that point to a more comprehensive, more general source of anxiety that you can identify and work on together.
Your teen may have done this kind of play-acting as a younger child. It is helpful for teens as well!
Simulate a possible situation, either by acting it out or merely suggesting a hypothetical and chatting about it. For example, it may seem silly, at first, for your child to pretend her mom or dad is a teacher, giving her a bad grade or a chemistry problem she can’t work out.
Still repeatedly running through ways of handling these situations can be therapeutic and give your child confidence that they will deal with similar problems in the real world. Some of these ways may be specific to situations, like feeling empowered to ask for extra help during office hours or getting a tutor. Other ways may involve anxiety reduction techniques.
6. Anxiety reduction techniques
Anxiety makes the body tense, and this tension reinforces feelings of anxiety. Practicing yoga is a great way to loosen up the body and help you relax -much better than vegging out on the couch with some TV.
The deep breathing techniques associated with activities like yoga are helpful too. For example, deep breathing decreases the activity of your neurons which means it calms your nervous system.
So, your teen probably shouldn’t drop into a downward dog when they feel anxiety coming on at school, but the breathing techniques can be applied subtly to loosen up and shake off anxiety’s grip.
7. Show Them Acceptance
Teens are especially susceptible to feelings of rejection. Even the slightest remark or behavior can have a lasting effect on them, discouraging their social development. To help them battle social anxiety, don’t try to change them or downplay their feelings of anxiety.
This doesn’t mean that you are okay with them struggling with anxiety for the rest of their lives or accept how these feelings might paralyze them. However, you certainly don’t have to accept every single action they commit in the name of anxiety.
However, it does mean that you must show them love and acceptance despite the difficulties they may be facing.
Even when you don’t quite understand why a situation is a big deal to them, try to respect that it is genuinely a big deal to them. Of course, this is part of being an empathetic parent, but it can be challenging at times.
8. Provide Confidence-Building Situations
Although you might be tempted to avoid social situations because they cause anxiety for your teen, don’t do it. The key to overcoming anxiety and building confidence is gradually exposing your teen to various conditions.
This might mean encouraging your teen to order for themselves at a restaurant or talking with a sales clerk about an item they want.
These little moments help to increase their confidence in social situations. Each interaction might just be a few minutes, but it can have a lasting impact.
Also, reward them for making an effort to step outside their comfort zone. It isn’t easy for them to do. So, make sure they know that you noticed.
9. Set Realistic Goals
It’s not uncommon for some teens to resort to all-or-nothing thinking. For example, they might believe that since they feel anxious about joining the basketball team that they simply can’t be a part of any social activity, ever.
To help your teen push through this mindset, encourage them to set a social goal for the future. If the school basketball team is too anxious for them, perhaps there is something else they’d enjoy instead.
The goal is to get them socially involved enough that motivates growth but at the same time keeps intense anxiety at bay. It’s something they’ll need to learn to balance.
10. Be There to Listen and Offer Advice
Addressing any type of anxiety can be discouraging and often emotionally draining. This sort of ebb and flow isn’t always dictated by age, either.
As a parent, do what you can to be your teen’s safe place. If your teen feels comfortable enough talking with you about their feelings, make an effort to truly listen to them. When they ask for your advice, give it to them without judgment.
You might not always understand exactly where they’re coming from, but practice empathy and compassion when they open up to you.
How to Battle Anxiety in Teens
Anxiety is more than occasional nervousness. It is a mental health disorder. Therefore, if your child is anxious — for any reason — calling a guide can be revolutionary.
Weekly therapy sessions are a “time-out” of sorts for your anxious teen. It is a judgment-free space; the present moment is honored and addressed. Concerns are openly aired, root causes are identified, and solutions are discovered together.
Also, teens are notoriously tricky to decipher. It’s not unusual for teenagers to become silent when questioned by their parents. This makes it essential to enlist the assistance of a trained professional. Working with a counselor is a time-proven option for managing anxiety in teens.
Most of all, your child’s weekly sessions can be viewed as a safe space. Every teen needs an avenue for sharing their feelings. In such a setting, teens can connect the dots between their feelings and the factors impacting them. This is precisely when skills are taught, and tools are shared.
Remember, anxiety in teens is a common part of modern life. Understanding this trend and seeking help to manage it is how you and your teenaged child can beat the odds.
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