ScreenAgers

Dr. Delaney Ruston

How to teach them the “hard stuff” from home

I have immense gratitude for the teachers, school administrators, school counselors, and many more who are doing so much to make learning happen from our homes.

That said, it’s not a surprise that there are many hurdles. Some schools have it more wired in than others, some teachers have adapted better than others, and so on. So where does that leave us, parents? What can parents do to feel they are helping their kids’ education besides what they are already doing? 

Now is an excellent time for us to step into the work of educating them on coping with emotions, which our schools do not usually cover in much depth, although it is vital. I can’t tell you the number of kids and teens I have spoken with who tell me their primary way of coping is turning to a screen to “numb out,” “be distracted,” and “try to forget about it.” 

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has been gaining traction in middle and high schools, but still far too few of them teach these skills.  A landmark study of studies (called a meta-analysis) found that in schools where schoolwide SEL is taught, students averaged an 11-percentile gain in academic performance compared to other students. Of course, there were also gains in emotional skills, attitudes, and behaviors.  

Last month my friend, Lizz Dexter-Mazza, PhD,  an adolescent psychologist, was dealing with the stressors of her kids (ages 8, 12, and 13) doing school online. They had limited computers and she had to alter her kids’ schedules from what the school was prescribing. Suddenly she had an idea, “Why not alter more than just their schedule?”

She told me:

“Since their school doesn’t teach social-emotional learning, if I get to make the schedule and run ‘the school,’ then I also get to include SEL (social-emotional learning) as a core component.”

Lizz and her husband, Jim Mazza, PhD, also a psychologist, have been working for years to bring SEL skills into middle and high schools. They started taping the lessons they have been providing to their three kids and you can find them here!  I have to add that Lizz and Jim are incredible people and are so committed to the work they do.

Let me give a couple of social and emotional curriculum ideas that you can consider weaving into your discussions with your kids for their “Home-School Curriculum.” 

First topic: Self-awareness. 

Gosh, even just writing that, I am aware of how mushy it sounds, but wait, hear me out. I was just talking with Nicholas Martino, who was awarded a teacher of the year announced in the Washington Post. He told me that one of the first things he does with his students is to have them reflect on their strengths and what areas they want to improve. Nicholas said that building self-awareness among his students is one of the most important things he does as an educator. 

Thinking about what kids are and are not learning right now, let’s get them to think about their long life as learners. I suggest asking them any of these types of questions: *(it can be effective to include yourself in the discussion and, of course, to be as non-judgemental as possible when kids give their answers.)

  • “What do you find you are pretty good at in group projects?”
  • “What is hard for you during group projects and is there anything you would like to improve?”
  • “When it comes to learning via lectures online with platforms like Zoom, what helps you stay focused? What pulls you away?”
  • “With all that is going on in the greater world right now, and your own world right now, are there any topics that you have found particularly interesting that you want to learn more about someday?”

Second topic: Social media and the science of expressing emotions rather than suppressing emotions.

Social media and many of the shows kids watch do not show them how to express feelings. Instead, they show them how to be “cool.”

In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, there was an eighth-grader who told me,

“I remember in a time of my life where I wanted people to know that I was happy. Let me just show this to the entire world how happy I am. I would post over, and over, and over again until I almost believed it myself when I obviously wasn’t very happy. But I wanted to be. I wanted to be happy so bad, but I just wasn’t.” 

Social media promotes perfection and performance over authenticity and compassion. This can be taxing on a person’s emotional well-being, particularly the pressure to look like they’re doing okay when they are not feeling okay. (Of course, on a positive note, social media can be a way teens reach their friends to give or get support.) 

If a teen is upset about something, what will they do with that uncomfortable feeling? One thing people try to do is to “down-regulate” their emotions. Down-regulation is when someone tries to lessen the emotion by doing things like trying not to think about it. The reason a person may do this is to attempt to feel less negatively affected by the feeling; in other words, feel better, but also to try not to look upset. 

Researchers began conducting experiments on the effects of down-regulation, also referred to as “suppressing emotions.” In the paper, “Emotion Regulation and Memory: The Cognitive Costs of Keeping One’s Cool,” Stanford researchers James Gross and Jane Richards report a study in which participants (average age 19.8) watched an accident in a video as a way to elicit emotions. Before the film, they told one group of participants to suppress their emotional reactions, and the other group did not get those instructions. Researchers found that the participants told to suppress their emotions recalled fewer details when asked about the film later, in comparison to the other groups.

Investigators have also found that suppressing emotions causes peoples’ blood pressure to go up. Interestingly, not only does the blood pressure go up in the participants, but when they had to explain the film to someone else, while still suppressing any emotions elicited from the film, the blood pressure of the person they were talking to also went up! (This did not happen in the control groups.)  

All this to say, as humans, it is so important to think about what emotions are we suppressing, and is it time to express them? With all the emotional stressors in homes right now, are things being talked about enough? Are people suppressing feelings they are having about interpersonal conflicts? 

Third topic: Skills to help manage anxious feelings

As you know, I am obsessed with getting skills to youth about how to handle hard emotions. Let me share a skill here that you can consider teaching in your “Home-School Curriculum.”

When a person is having anxious feelings they can stop and ask themselves “Does the feeling fit the facts?” If it does, then it is all about problem-solving. For example, a student has a test tomorrow and they are anxious because they can not figure out what is going to be on it because they had problems with their Zoom. Well, this anxious feeling does fit the facts, so the goal would be for the student to problem solve. Maybe they decide to call some friends who are in the class to discuss the upcoming test. 

Now let’s take another anxious feeling. Maybe a child is feeling worried about a friendship. They want to call that person to see what is going on but they are too afraid. Does that feeling fit the facts? Is something awful going to happen if they call? Will they be shunned, mortified, rejected by that person, and all their friends? No! So the feeling does not fit the facts and then the goal would be to do the opposite and to call that person. 

It is easier said than done to do the opposite of our fears. But that is the goal and when we can do it, it is great for building self-efficacy — even if one does not feel that way at the moment. I know this personally. This approach of, “Does the feeling fit the facts” is something one of my past therapists taught me and it has been very useful over the years. My teens also use it at times. 

Ideas for conversation starters:

  • When you think about these hard times right now, what are some of your strengths that you feel are helping you get through each day? 
  • What do you make of the research findings that suppressing emotions can cause problems in memory, in processing of information, and with blood pressure? Can you think of a mini-experiment to try to replicate their study?
  • What are some things you are feeling anxious about right now? Do the feelings fit the facts? If so, what have you thought about in terms of trying to problem solve? If it does not fit the facts, can you do the opposite? (Of course, a lot of anxiety right now is just all about the uncertainties of the future and I will be writing other skills for addressing that in upcoming blogs.)

Needing Attention and Crying For Help on Social Media

Several weeks ago, my daughter, now a senior in high school, was on her phone on the hammock she had set up outside. I got in the hammock beside her — very carefully I must add because hammocks make me motion sick.  As we laid there, I was doing my usual work of trying my best not to ask her questions about her phone — things like, “Hey hun, who ya talking with?” Eventually, I could not fully hold back and said gently, “Seems like you are in a deep conversation with someone.” 

She said yes in a very agreeable tone (yeah, I had not frustrated her).

She went on to say: “Yeah, my friend is feeling depressed, and we are talking.” 

Me: “Oh, that’s great she told you.” 

Tessa: “Yeah, it’s been going on for a long time.” 

Me: “How did you find out?”

Tessa: “She posted on her Snapchat story.”

Me: “Oh, got it. I’m just curious, did a lot of people see it?” 

Tessa: “No it was just her story available to her close friends.”

Me: “How many people is that?”

Tessa: “Like, 15.”

Me: “What did she write on the post?”

Tessa: “Just that she was feeling depressed and, like, not getting out of bed.” 

Then Tessa shared a long paragraph she wrote to her friend, all about how it’s so hard to motivate yourself to do things when you’re feeling bad but how starting small can make such a difference. She went on to share her “victory technique,” originally taught to Tessa by a different friend. In this strategy, you label every accomplishment as a “victory,” even things as small as going to the bathroom. As these victories are acknowledged, momentum builds to do even more throughout the day. 

In addition to all the advice Tessa had written, I was moved by all the supportive things she said to her friend as well. 

Tessa then told me she had to get out of the hammock — she was going on a walk with this friend (this was pre-social distancing). “Wait!” I exclaimed, “Let me get out first so I can do it slowly and get less seasick.”

My conversation with Tessa reminded me that while not an everyday event, kids often get messages or see posts of friends who are going through hard times. Some teens say that it is helpful for them to be able to reach out to many people at once via social media, but this, of course, raises concerns. Will only the people it was intended for see it? How do peers on the receiving end know how to respond? And what happens when a person makes a post that worries their peers— but when asked, the person says nothing is wrong? 

Here is an example of when teens are worried about a friend who is showing signs of having a problem but not talking about it openly. 

Some months ago, while at a dance competition where our daughters were competing, a mom I knew told me how her teen daughter was worried about a friend. Her daughter (I will call her Jill) knew her friend (I will call her Mandy) made comments that she didn’t like her body. Now her posts were seeming pretty dark; she seemed sad and mad in her posts.

Two other friends of Jill were also worried about Mandy, but they did not know what to do. The friends felt stuck because when they tried to talk with Mandy about their concerns, both in person and through written communication, like texts, Mandy would skirt the issue. Jill and her friends wondered, were they overreacting? Was there something really bad brewing? They hated not knowing.

The good news was that the three friends worked together to sort out a plan quickly. They decided to talk with a mom who they felt could skillfully speak with Mandy’s mother. 

I asked my friend where things stood now. She said Jill was happy that they had the other mom as an ally and that she would be able to talk with Mandy’s mom. She also said she hoped the other mom would not be too alarmist.  

There are other times when there are serious crisis signals, and emergency intervention needs to happen.

I will never forget when Tessa was in seventh grade, and she had an iPod at the time. One night she came into my room and showed me a close-up photo of a girl’s mouth open with many pills on her tongue. Tessa told me this was someone she was friendly with at school, and this girl had just posted this for a small group of people to see.

I was so glad, of course, that Tessa knew to come to me. She tried calling that girl, but she didn’t answer. Tessa and I immediately put our heads together, contacted the school to reach her parents. The situation ultimately was well managed, and the girl got the help she needed.

Sharing these stories with youth in your life can be an excellent way to discuss these important issues, particularly now during COVID-19 when mental health challenges are so prevalent. 

Here are some points to consider sharing with your kids and teens:

  1. Let them know that you understand that sometimes people will put on their social media — more likely on their private accounts — things that give their friends concern.  
  2. Let them know that when things like this happen, you are not looking for an excuse to take them off social media, but rather you want them to feel safe and come talk with you. It is so important to say this since tweens and teens worry that if parents know that issues occur, parents will rush to end or restrict social media. (That can be appropriate at times but that is not what I am discussing today.)
  3. Let them know that you REALLY understand that how their social world perceives them is REALLY important to them and that you don’t want to embarrass them — saying this when no issues are happening can help build their trust, so they come to you when they need to.
  4. Let them know that if they come to you, your goal is to work with them, and not to take over. You are there to help them drive, rather than take over the steering wheel. Of course, there can be times when we as parents do have to fully drive but these times are not as common. 
  5. Let them know you want them to have someone to go to. Even though we want them to come to us, some teens might decide not to at specific times for certain reasons. Is there a person in your family, like an older cousin, or an uncle they feel close to, that they also know they can go to?
  6. Let them know they should remind their friends that they really want to help and it is no burden. When a person confides in someone, that someone is usually honored that they did so — they get to feel trusted, appreciated, and much more. So often, when a person is under the weight of hard emotions, they incorrectly believe that if they go to someone for support, they will be burdening that person. 
  7. Often teens will know at least one person who “overshares” and makes the whole friend group uncomfortable. Talk about ways your teen can gently bring this up with the “oversharer”.  

The key is that we let youth in our life know that our main goal is everyone getting the help they need in hard situations. I have written about all sorts of ways we can assist people getting the help they need when they are going through emotionally hard times, and here is the link to that TTT,  A Dozen Ideas For Finding Support.

Ideas to get the conversation started:

  1. What things do you say to friends to check in with the hopes of getting a more honest answer? 
  2. Have you ever had a friend start posting things that made you concerned, like posting memes that refer to drug use, or to being misunderstood, or to references of anorexia, or other stuff? 
  3. Are you talking with anyone now who is going through a hard time?

Building Brain Attention Skills

For most of my life, I had no interest in meditation or anything like it. Perhaps because I grew up in Berkeley, California, a mecca of hippie culture, or maybe it was because I grew up with intense adversity in my home. For whatever reason, I always steered away from things that felt “new age-y.”

Meanwhile I thought mindfulness meditation—which I will refer to as just meditation from here on out—was all about being able to clear thoughts from one’s mind. I figured why even try because that seemed impossible. I am not alone, many others are under the same misconception that the goal is all about ridding the brain of thoughts. 

It was my son that got me thinking that I should look into meditation. In 10th grade Chase started to use an app called Calm that helped him with relaxation techniques. He told me several times how much it really helped. 

With his input, and with mindfulness becoming all the rage, I looked into meditation. I was relieved to learn that mindfulness meditation does not tout a goal of clearing one’s mind. Our brains are mega processors that are constantly scanning the environment and continually generating thoughts. There is no off button for that, no matter how long you sit and breathe and try. 

Now with COVID-19, I thought it would be a great time to talk about what the heck mindfulness meditation is and why many people, including youth, find it useful for having more control of their focus, dealing with stress, helping with screen time issues and more. I am now one of those people, having started about two years ago using apps such as Headspace and 10 Percent Happier, to meditate for about 10 minutes, 5 times a week.

1. Building up the attention muscle

One main thing in a meditation practice is learning how to get better at paying attention to what one wants to be paying attention to, rather than being pulled by random thoughts that pop into one’s head. This practice helps build the “attention” muscle. It’s all about getting more insight into one’s patterns of thinking and learning to direct attention to more helpful thoughts.

In https://www.screenagersmovie.com/nc-trailer, we visit my daughter Tessa’s high school where for a few minutes on Tuesdays, many classrooms would take a few minutes for quiet time—some teachers would lead a guided mindfulness meditation and students could participate or not—no one was ever forced to close their eyes or partake. 

I filmed one teacher as she led the class and said these words: 

“So the invitation this week is to notice when you’re starting to be critical of yourself and just notice can I shift what I’m focusing on away from that.”

2. Notice the stories our brains create to change the narrative

When Chase was in 10th grade, he sustained a major concussion, which led to more than four years of chronic pain. He would have medical workups for many symptoms that he had on and off over the years. There were months when he would feel discouraged, angry, and sad that he had so many unexplained physical problems that kept him from being able to be physically active. It was so hard as his mom to see him so sad. 

Eventually, Chase started using apps to teach himself mindfulness meditation. He particularly loved learning from George Mumford, who has been teaching meditation to professional athletes, such as Michael Jordan. 

In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, we see Chase listening to Mumford on an app. Then Chase talks about how learning mindfulness meditation helped him deal with his chronic pain. He says: 

“There’s the sensation of pain, but then I add the stress of being in pain and the emotional baggage of the history of the pain and the uncertainty of the future of the pain. And I recognize that I actually have a lot more control over this than I thought. So in my day-to-day when I’m in physical or emotional pain, I can be mindful of the negative layers that are building up on top of it and intervene before they themselves cause unnecessary suffering.”

Chase actually ended up doing a 10 day silent meditation retreat in Washington state during a gap year before starting college. For ten days they did not talk and meditated for about 10 hours a day. He said, not surprisingly, that it was the hardest thing he ever did, but that he was so glad he did it. Man, was I impressed—sounds SO CHALLENGING TO ME.

3. Better ability to push the pause button

Meditation can help people get better at being able to consciously stop for a split second to notice what is happening and make a decision how to act rather than just react. For example, when a person is sitting at a table with friends and having an urge to check their phone, they may get better at being able to notice the urge and not respond to it but let it pass. In that moment of consciousness (mindfulness, attention, awareness), the person can respond with a choice: Do I want to give the signal to my friends that I am not genuinely engaging with them? Do I want to leave where I am virtually? Or, do I want to stay focused on my friends and take a big breath letting the urge to check my phone pass?

Kids and teens can surely relate to the issue of having said something during a video game they regretted or having posted a comment they wish they hadn’t. Talking to them about getting better at pressing a mental pause buttonis definitely a good discussion topic. 

4. Getting to a relaxed state

Another benefit of meditation is the ability each of us has to activate our parasympathetic nervous system by relaxing and breathing calmly. When I have spoken with students at schools where mindfulness is getting incorporated into classrooms, the number one thing students say they like about it is learning how to use breathing exercises to handle stress better. 

While working as a physician in an ER, I helped ease the misery of many people experiencing panic attacks. I use the word “misery” because people having a panic attack can feel horrible and they can genuinely believe they are having a heart attack or some other lethal event. Part of the treatment is to gently guide the person to start to breathe more calmly—since often they are breathing at a faster rate than they would normally. This activity helps activate their natural stress reduction system called the parasympathetic system.

Since learning more about mindfulness meditation, I have been much more likely to bring it up with certain adolescents and adults in my clinic for whom I think it might benefit them. It is wonderful that I can give them information about apps and YouTube videos. 

5. Permission to “begin again”

Something I love about mindfulness is the frequently used term “begin again.” Many meditation teachers use this phrase. It is the idea that when you have the goal of picking a focus point, whatever you decide — it could be your breath, or the feeling of one’s feet on the floor or the sounds of birds — your mind will soon start to wander. When that happens, you just “begin again.” The cool thing is that the need to begin again should not be viewed as a moment of failure but rather a win because you realized your mind was wandering, and you used your brain to redirect to your focus point.  

Recognizing when we are off course and then gently bringing the focus back can help in real life. When we set up goals and then digress, it’s easy to completely give up rather than calmly remind ourselves to “begin again.” 

We can use the same skill to prevent getting overly frustrated when we express behavior that we don’t want to do. When I unintentionally bark at my son for being on his phone, I apologize for my tone, and I tell myself, “begin again.” Or when I stop writing (my attended attention spot) and start checking email, then I catch myself and rather than beat myself up — “You’re a loser, you will never finish your book” — instead non-judgmentally I go back to my writing, I begin again.

Final word of advice

Pushing our kids or teens to do something like meditation, even gently, can very often turn them off to it. One example of my failings in this regard is featured in Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER. Tessa was talking to me about a weekly teen group that she started going to, and she says on camera that she was going “… because you [meaning me her mom]  didn’t get involved… unlike when you emailed the debate club, and I won’t go back.”

Tessa only rarely practices mindfulness meditation. But I am glad that she overhears the little lessons and short guided meditations that I do. It is also cool that she was doing it in her high school. Someday in her life she might decide to do it more, but until then I bite my tongue and try not to suggest she do a lesson with me. Truth be told about every two months, I do ask, and well about 50% of the time she says yes. 

For those kids and teens that are interested, there are many many apps and YouTube videos that provide little lessons. I think the Headspace App short lessons that precede short sessions are fun and they are animated and explain the concepts I just wrote about. 

Ideas for conversation starters:

  1. When you think about the words “mindfulness” and “meditation,” what comes to mind?
  2. Have you ever learned anything about mindfulness or breathing exercises in school? 
  3. Do you find your mind thinks negative thoughts more than you want, and if so, do you think it is possible to get better at redirecting your thoughts to more pleasant ones?
  4. Do you think people can get better at stopping before doing something, like hitting send on a picture they might regret sending or other types of decisions?

Anxiety — What Every Young Person Should Know

Anxious feelings are understandably very high right now in youth given COVID-19. My daughter is a senior in high school and gets waves of many emotions right now–such as anxious feelings related to deciding on a college or sad feelings thinking about all the things she will miss from not being able to go back to her school. All kids have stories right now of things they are fearing, regretting, missing out on, obsessing over, and much more.

As a physician, I thought it would be helpful to give insight into the difference between anxious feelings vs. clinical anxiety, and then to provide examples of skills and resources.

I have been talking with psychiatrists and psychologists who are finding that many teens who were experiencing a lot of anxious feelings related to things at school are doing overall emotionally better with school out. Yet they do talk about how this can change for them at any time, particularly as the days like this continue. 

Traditionally schools in our country do not teach about mental health challenges and skills. Fortunately, that is changing, as seen in Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER

No matter what has been taught at school, there is still so much that can be discussed with our kids now that will help them when they face anxious feelings and will help them in helping their friends and others. In surveys, teens report that they are more likely to tell a peer about hard emotions than adults. I say this only to point out that helping our youth gain skills can be a real asset to be able to help others in their lives, be it now or be it years from now. 

Anxious feelings

We often use the word “stressed” in our society, which can mean many different things to the person saying it, such as feeling that something in their life is out of control, or they feel overburdened, or irritated, or many other things.

In the same way, when a person says they are feeling “anxious”, it can mean many different things—similar to the word “stressed.”  This is where the skill of stopping to think about the core emotions behind these words is a great one to hone. Understanding leads to the most effective interventions. 

It can be helpful when thinking about anxious feelings to know that often the anxious feelings are actually fear. Fear of an uncertain future, fear that you did the wrong thing (regret is a type of anxiousness), fear of what will happen if you ask someone if they want to video chat, and then the fear of how that person will perceive you. 

In Washington State, there is a survey of high schoolers every two years. Here are the 2018 results regarding anxious feelings for teens in King County– where the city I live, Seattle, is located: 

8th-graders 

58% reported that they at least sometimes “felt nervous or anxious in the past two weeks.” 
46% reported that at least sometimes, they were “unable to stop or control worrying in the past two weeks.” 

12th-graders

69% felt nervous at least sometimes
59% were unable to stop or control worrying at least sometimes

Unfortunately, they only started asking these questions in 2018, so I cannot provide you with any data from past years. 

There is an incredible dearth of data in this country to be able to effectively compare data about anxious feelings of youth over past years. Often people cite two surveys of college students. 

For example, the American College Health Association surveys students from many colleges over many years. They have been asking if students “ever felt overwhelming anxiety in the past 12 months.” In 2011, roughly 50% reported yes, and in 2016 approximately 58% reported yes. 

The other study of U.S. freshmen asked if they ever “felt overwhelmed.”  

Clinical anxiety

The numbers here come from the main comprehensive study on youth mental health, called the National Comorbidity study-Adolescent Supplement. When any book or scientific paper references rates of adolescent clinical anxiety, this is the paper to which they are referring. 

(*Of note the numbers here were rounded to the nearest tenth.) 

  • By age 18, 32% of youth will have met criteria for some type of clinical anxiety, ranging from very mild to very serious.
  • By age 18, 19 % of youth will have met the criteria for severe clinical anxiety — meaning it caused severe impairment and/or distress.

The prevalence of the main specific types of clinical anxiety

By Age 18…

…19% of youth will have met criteria for having had a specific anxiety phobia (such as towards spiders). These were ranked from mild to severe, and the majority met criteria for “mild.”)

….9% met criteria for social anxiety (the majority met criteria for “mild.”)

….5% will have met criteria for PTSD.

….8% will have met criteria for separation anxiety.

….2% will have met criteria for generalized anxiety (the majority met criteria for “severe.”)

…2% will have met criteria for a panic disorder (the majority met criteria for “severe.”)

…2% will have met criteria for agoraphobia (the majority met criteria for “severe.”)

Unfortunately, the data collected for this study was done in the early 2000s and published in 2010, and there has not been a follow-up study. I know this is shocking. I have spoken with the researchers, and they told me it had to do a lot with a lack of funding. 

Diagnosing Clinical Anxiety

Some anxious feelings are to be expected and are even helpful. For example, anxiousness in anticipation of a test in a few days can help a person to study for a test.

When anxious feelings are often out of proportion for the situation, and the feeling does not fit the fact, this may indicate the possibility of clinical anxiety. 

For example, these two scenarios would be cause for concern:

1. A teen worries all the time about tests. Long before it is even going to happen the student is so consumed by the fear. The teen loses sleep and has lots of intrusive thoughts about failing.

2. A youth experiences significant anxious feelings when they imagine talking to other people or raising their hands in class. This has resulted in them being extremely behind in school and not have any friends. While the student desperately wants to change, they can’t move past their anxious feelings. 

As a physician, I assess anxiety in teens and adults in my clinic. I ask everyone who comes into the clinic at some point in the visit, “Are you experiencing any anxiety or depression?” The incidence of anxiety and depression is significantly higher in a medical setting than in the general population, so it is important that I ask about these things. And, so often, I see how relieved they are that I asked. When I see people in my clinic, and I have identified a concern about anxiety, the number one question I then ask is, “Are you avoiding things?” Their eyes light up and often respond, “How did you guess that? 

The main questionnaire used in health settings to help diagnose clinical anxiety is called the GAD 7. I really recommend going over these questions with your kids or teens. 

It starts with these questions:

  1. Over the last two weeks, how often have you been bothered by the following problems?
  • Feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge
  • Not being able to stop or control worrying

2. If the teen answers yes to either, then the following questions are asked if they have these symptoms:

  • Worrying too much about different things?
  • Trouble relaxing?
  • So restless that it’s hard to sit still?
  • Become easily annoyed or irritable?
  • Felt afraid as if something awful might happen? 

3. Then the third part assesses how distressing and/or debilitating the symptoms are and asks:

If you checked off any problems: 

How difficult have these made it for you to do your work?  

Take care of things at home, or get along with other people? 

(Options are from “Not difficult at all” to “Extremely difficult”)

When symptoms are ongoing, there can be real suffering and can lead to avoidance of certain situations. So, while it is common for teens to feel a bit nervous about going up to talk with a peer, a more intense nervousness, would indicate a more severe problem. This might present by them starting to avoid most social interactions and becoming more isolated. 

When anxious feelings lead to a lot of suffering, via constant worrying, and a lot of negative consequences, such as avoiding situations often, these are signs that anxiety is a clinical problem and should be addressed with professional help such as counselors or therapists.

Skills to Help with Anxiety

These skills can be helpful even for youth who do not have clinical anxiety but for whom anxious feelings are getting in the way of doing things they would like doing, such as having more friends, worrying less often, and so on. 

Let’s start with a skill that can help with all types of anxious feelings—not just clinical anxiety.

The 3-Ex’s 

In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER psychologist and author Lynn Lyons describes a skill she calls the 3 Ex’s:

  1. “The 1st X is you will expect worry to show up. You would say something to yourself like, “Oh, there it is. So I’m about to take a test. I hear somebody else got into this school. You have to recognize that. That’s your worry. 
  2. The 2nd X is you are going to externalize it. You pull it out, you give it a name, and say something like ‘Hi, Pete, nice to see you.”
  3.  The 3rd ex is that you are going to experiment, so you do the opposite of what the worry is demanding. The worry demands attention. You decide not to get in a discussion with it and, instead, you are going to pivot. You pivot into getting started on your homework. Or if you’re falling asleep, pivot into thinking about something that is sort of mundane enough that doesn’t really matter to you.”

Exposure therapy (also referred to as exposure response prevention)

The goal of this therapy is to work towards no longer avoiding things that a person wishes they were not avoiding. It is about eventually doing the things the person is avoiding over and over, so they get used to the uncomfortable feelings and learn how to do actions despite anxious feelings. Meanwhile, the more the action is done, over time, the anxious feelings will go down to some degree.

This technique is done in graded steps. For example, a teen is too anxious to participate in class. They might not even be able to verbalize what they are afraid of, but they might be able to verbalize reasons, such as they are afraid people will judge them poorly, laugh at them and not want to associate with them.

Graded steps that might work for the student — and perhaps working with the teacher in the class to go through this:

1. Start by making time with a supportive teacher to practice outside of class to ask questions and to offer answers.

2. Making plans with a teacher before a class to have an answer ready, so when the teacher asks the question, the student will raise their hand and propose the answer.

3. Doing the same prep work to think of, and together, think of a question the student could ask in class. Then, the student is reassured that the teacher thinks this is a “good” question that is valid, reasonable.

4. Creating a goal of how many times in the class they will raise their hand regarding answering a question or asking a question. For instance, picking four times a week and having an accountability plan with a reward/ treat when they accomplish the goal.

5. Finally, starting to raise their hand and participate more in another class where the student has not been working with the teacher.

This is challenging to do, but the good news is it has a high success rate. As the teen does these exposures, as they step into the discomfort of getting scaffolding and support, you can actually see changes in the brain scans of the amygdala. It is no longer as hyperactive as it was before to that stimuli.

In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, Olivia, who is 15, had clinical social anxiety, and her therapeutic exposure task was to go to a shopping mall and ask for sushi at a pizza place. She needed to practice being embarrassed. When you do something like this, it makes real-life situations that much more tolerable. I’m not saying we have to do that for everyone, but sometimes it’s just calling that friend you don’t like to call, you practice doing that. You just do baby steps.

Parents and teens need support to do this. Asking youth to face the fear and feel anxiety is so hard as a parent and, of course, for the youth to do—if it were not hard, they would have been able to stop. 

For parents, finding other parents who are going through the same situation or have gone through it can be such a help–not only as a source of support but also as a way to find resources. 

Getting counseling for one’s child or teen is key, and for parents to be a part of that counseling at times, it is also important when appropriate. In addition, parents usually benefit from things like their own counseling, support groups or parent coaching. 

Building Brain Attention Skills with Mindfulness

In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, we learn that my college-age son, Chase uses the App, 10% Happier to learn mindfulness skills from George Mumford, an expert who has taught these skills to many athletes, including Michael Jordan. 

In the film, I say:

“My son, Chase, also found an online tool that has really helped him. He’s had chronic pain from an accident years ago and lots of stress because of it. From his favorite online teacher he’s been learning mindfulness. It’s all about getting more insight into one’s patterns of thinking and learning to direct attention to more helpful thoughts.”

In the film, Chase talks about it in this way: 

“There’s the sensation of pain, but then I add the stress of being in pain and the emotional baggage of the history of the pain and the uncertainty of the future of the pain. And I recognize that I actually have a lot more control over this than I thought. So in my day-to-day when I’m in physical or emotional pain, I can be mindful of the negative layers that are building up on top of it and intervene before they themselves cause unnecessary suffering.”

Here are some popular Apps that teach mindfulness 

(Myself, my husband and my teens have used all of these at different times)

  1. Ten Percent Happier
  2. Calm
  3. Headspace

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) has many useful skills for overcoming intense feelings, including anxiety. There are many websites with many skills.

The TIPP skill is one such example. If a person is suddenly overcome by anxiety or other strong emotions, doing one of these things changes a person’s physiology, which helps stop or lower the intense emotions. 

T– Temperature–the person applies ice in a bag to their face for a minute or two. Many teens also talk about how useful it is to put their faces into an ice bath of water for a few seconds. I have known many teens who find this temperature skill very helpful.

I– Intense exercise–the person takes the energy of the emotions and does some quick jumping jacks or other quick exercises.

P-Paced breathing–the person slows their breathing-such as breathing in for breathing for 5 seconds in and then 7 seconds out.

P-Paired muscle relaxation-the person breaths in and tenses a body part at the same time, such as the arms–they pay attention to the feeling of the contractions and then when they breathe out they release the contraction.

Mental Health Organizations – Resources for Teens and Parents

The following are examples of mental health organizations

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

This organization has information on stress and many types of anxiety conditions as well as links to find help for children, teens, and adults.

NAMI

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has local branches across the country and offers support groups, online resources, programs in schools, and more.

Child Mind Institute

The site has many written materials and links to awareness campaigns. My Younger Self, for example, is 30 short interviews with actors, athletes, and other celebrities who discuss their past mental health challenges.

Youth Mental Health First Aid

These are free day-long courses designed to help parents learn how to understand youth mental health issues better and as a parent, things to do. On the website, you can find if there are classes near you.

Mental Health America

This organization has affiliates across the country. The website has links to information, and they also do important work in working to increase mental health access, locally and nationally. This page on their website is helpful for the nuts and bolts of finding mental health support.

6 seconds

The international emotional intelligence network researches and shares tools, methods, and training to create a kinder, more positive world.

BTWF

Born This Way Foundation – Started by Lady Gaga and her mother, the organization works to build a “braver, kinder world” for youth by creating safe-spaces and promoting self-care skills.

Psychology Today (link to https://www.psychologytoday.com/

This site is very well respected as a way to find a therapist, psychiatrist, or support group in one’s area. One puts in their zip code, and any indicators, such as “adolescent” and it will list many possible providers. Then the provider can be contacted, and a short call can be set up to see if there will be a good fit. 

Phone and Text Lines for Mental health

Crisis Text Line is free, 24/7 support for those in crisis. Text 741741 from anywhere in the US to text with a trained Crisis Counselor. Crisis Text Line trains volunteers to support people in crisis. This organization is a resource that many youth and adults report using and feeling helped. People who volunteer for CT receive 30 hours of training before they start, and they volunteer several hours a month.

My good friend is a volunteer, and we spent an afternoon together, where she showed me how their training works and examples of the work she does with people. It was powerful. A person can text about anything they are struggling with, and the volunteers are there and provide supportive interactions. Even though it is called Crisis Text, the texter does not have to have an imminent crisis; they get all sorts of people seeking support for things like eating issues, problems with peers, and just people dealing with hard emotions.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Call 1-800-273-8255

7 Cups – Connects you to caring listeners for free emotional support

Better Help – This is a fee-based service that provides online therapy via Skype and text

Boys Town National Hotline 1-800-448-3000. 24-hour, free, confidential hotline staffed by trained counselors for boys and girls to receive help with bullying, anger, abuse, depression, school issues, and more.

211.org is a free and confidential national hotline that connects callers with resources and support in their area. 

Ideas for conversation starters with youth in your life:

  1. Clearly, there is a need for more research done around both anxious feelings and clinical anxiety of youth in this country. What type of research could you imagine doing?
  2. If you were to study anxious feelings as they relate to screen time, what would be some interesting questions that you could see researching? 
  3. What strategies do you find helpful when you are feeling anxious?
  4. What skills mentioned here could you see ever using or telling a friend about?

Feeling Anxious? Talking about it skillfully with your kids and teens

I believe that talking skillfully with youth in our life about our emotions — past and present — and the ways we navigate such feelings are some of the best resiliency teachings we can do as parents.  

I have worked to become more skillful in talking about my anxious feelings, and other challenging emotions, with my kids over the years. I have learned how to share with them what is appropriate and not to communicate those things that would be burdensome. One tool has been to run things by people whose insight I deeply trust before sharing things with my kids.

I had a very intense childhood, and I don’t ever overshare or burden them with certain details of that time of my life. Burdening our kids with our past traumas or making them be our care providers is not good for them at all!

Naming the feelings we have, and how we handle them, is something kids, and teens appreciate. I have spoken to many who say how they wish their parents would talk more about their own emotional states.

I interviewed many parents for Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER about whether they talk with their kids about their emotional challenges and ways they have addressed them. And, so often, parents stopped, scratched their heads and said they have never thought about it, but now that I had asked, they realized they had not. 

In the film, I ask one father the following question,   

“Do you ever talk about your emotional experience of what your day is like?”

He responds, 

“I don’t think so. You mean like just kind of saying how I’m feeling about something other than being angry with them for not doing something. I can’t think of a lot of examples of checking in emotionally and letting them know what’s going on.

So now, in this time of high anxiety, it is a good time to consider talking more openly about your present and/or past feelings and things you have done or are doing to manage the emotions. 

In doing so here are just a few of the positive things you will be modeling: 

  1. That it is natural to be feeling all sorts of feelings —anxious, worried, angry, sad, and yes, also happy at times too — and not to feel guilty about that.
  2. That trying to understand what we are feeling can be challenging. For example, when we say “stressed” what do we mean? Overwhelmed? Afraid? Getting to the core of an emotion can help address it more effectively. 
  3. That no one can fully control the thoughts and feelings that come into one’s head. So, that might mean maybe, for you, the parent, your anxious feelings don’t fit the facts. 
  4. That we have choices of how we want to handle challenging emotions. You model this when you talk about the things you have tried to help handle your emotions. For example, maybe you say, “I am feeling anxious, and it just makes me want to avoid the feelings and watch movies, but actually that is making me feel worse. I realize I need help so I am going to start talking with someone who can help me. “

I found it very interesting what psychologist and author, Laura Kastner, PhD, says in Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER about parents who want their teens to open up to them about what is going on emotionally for the teen, but who don’t model this openness themselves. She says: 

“Have these teenagers seen their fathers or even their mothers talk about mistakes, embarrassment, shame, disappointment, regret. It’s an emotional language that they need to learn from our modeling it at the dinner table and other places. But it’s also a sense of vulnerability that they need to sort of master.”

I loved meeting and filming for Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER this one family in which the dad, mom, and son talked about how the father changed from telling his sons to “man up” to valuing discussions about emotions. 

The dad says,

 “I come from India, and over there, you know, you don’t show the sign of weakness. Crying is the sign of weakness. And I didn’t want them to be weak. And I’d say, “Why are you crying?… So what’s wrong with you?’ And they will try to explain, and I say, “Come on, be a man, man up.”

Then his son says,

“When I’m stressed out, it’s helpful to just talk about it with someone. ‘Cause it’s like you don’t wanna hold in all that emotion because it’s just not healthy. I kind of feel like I try and make it so that he doesn’t feel uncomfortable talking to me.” 

The dad,

“And he’ll say, ‘So you can talk to me, you know that, right.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I know.’ “

The son,

“I think mom is good at talking with people. I do think that she does tell me when she’s going through something emotional.”

The dad,

“Now, I see how they approach it with their mother, and I see the positive impact it’s having on the kids. If I had not recognized that or changed that, they would have been different kids today.”

Let me reiterate this is not about overwhelming our kids with our hard emotions. But gently and skillfully naming what emotions are here for us at this moment in time. 

And one final point is to remember now and then that when we tell our kids or teens that we are having a hard day, one of the things they often enjoy doing is helping us to feel better. When they were little, they might have brought us a warm cloth for our head, and now maybe they lean in to hug us. Letting them feel needed is a real gift. All of us want to feel needed at times. It is truly empowering when we, as humans, get to help others. And the beauty is: it reduces anxious feelings of the person who receives the help and also reduces the stress of the person giving the help. Standing at the sidelines and seeing someone in emotional pain and not being able to do anything is very stressful. 

Here are some questions to start a conversation about anxiety:

  1. Have you felt any new feelings of anxiety this week?
  2. Do you notice that anyone else in the family is feeling anxious?
  3. How does that make you feel?
  4. Is there anything that you do to help make you bring down feelings of anxiety? Are there any ways that you have helped others this week bring down their levels of anxiety? 

Givers and Receivers

The intensity of all that is happening right now is so often overwhelming. Everything has been turned on its head. Through all of this, I am continually moved by the kindness, love, and tenacity of young people.  And it is about them that I write this right now.

But first, something that happened last night. We found a small package on our porch — and we truly do not know who left it for us. It seems copied as if they did this for many of the neighbors. It included toilet paper, a gift card to a local Thai restaurant, and a sweet card that had a quote from Mr. Rogers — which includes the following:

“All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connect us as neighbors — in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”

I love knowing that this was written by Mr. Rogers — who was so committed to helping young people understand relationships and feelings. He worked non-stop to create and protect screen time as a positive learning experience in kids’  lives. 

Thank you to whoever left this gift at our doorstep.

When it comes to kindness, I hear about so many ways that young people are reaching out to their friends and family wanting to make a difference.  For example, college students working to tutor high school students online. I am hearing how young people are concerned about their friends’ emotional state and are Facetiming them to have undistracted time together. 

I’ve heard from a few kids around the country who wrote letters of appreciation to their teachers. One teenager from California reached out to her teacher to share how she didn’t realize how hard it is to teach oneself math and history, and really misses the comfort of school.

My daughter yesterday decided to surprise her friends by dropping off at their doorsteps tubes of henna, so they could make art to feel better. The henna tubes came from India and are used to apply the henna die to the skin to create temporary decorations. 

When my neighbor sent out an email three days ago asking for volunteers to be on a list to help any neighbors in need, my son Chase immediately emailed back to get on the list.  

But this is not easy for our young people.Tonight, my daughter Tessa shared some of her writings from today.  I asked if I could put it in this TTT and she said yes. She wrote: 

“This past week has been life-changing as I see how fragile, uncharted and small our world is after all. As a young woman, I find myself carrying others’ pain close to my heart. I care deeply about my friends’ experiences or get worked up about my co-workers’ stress. More times than not though, these hardships leak into my own feelings. It can feel as though my heart has stopped pumping blood and instead been replaced with every tear, every hardship, and every loss, deep inside my heart. This was a dramatic way to say, I am sensitive. Sometimes I wish I could distance myself from the news channels and be blind to other’s pain. With more work in therapy and growing up, I try to value my ability to feel emotions deeply. I love when I can empathize with others to make them feel heard and validated. I also love when I can do something to have a positive change on the situation.”

How do we help support our youth? That is what I was thinking about today when I got to have a call with my dear friend Tammy Fisher, Ph.D., an author of several books and a school counselor who is always full of pearls. She has been working with her students remotely, and she was telling me this week she discussed the idea of their “Circle of Control” because it is always a lesson that resonates with youth. 

She has her students discuss the things they don’t have control over — the things that flow between one’s fingers — like an aggressive virus, but that there are things one still does have control over. For instance, they have the choice to Facetime a cousin or old friend, or the choice to call someone to brighten their day, or the choice to wash one’s hands, or the choice to walk into the other room and take two breaths if one’s emotion’s spike. 

And parents, we need to know in all of this we have our own “Circles of Control.” We can still work for healthy sleep (such as devices out of the bedroom for sleep time), for healthy food (ask our kids to help cook with us), and for healthy habits like doing a moment of gratitude at dinner. 


How parents can help youth with stress

Teens and tweens often tell me how they talk with each other about their stress levels.

The other day I passed out an anonymous survey for reactions from teens to Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, and one high schooler wrote: “It was really helpful to hear someone other than teens talk about teen stress.”

When people get asked to rank their level of perceived stress, teens on average report higher levels than adults. There are many reasons teens report stress, including academic-related stress and stress from relationships with peers and family. There is also the stress of trying to feel “good enough,” or trying to belong to a peer group, just to name a few.

Screen time and stress can be intertwined.  

Youth tell me many positive ways screen time helps them to cope with stress, such as contacting a good friend to get advice, or using it to make a song. Both of these uses help them relax and feel more competent. Many talk about YouTubers they turn to for insights on “How to cope on a bad day?” or “How to approach a friend who is ignoring them?” Others tell me that they achieve instant stress reduction from watching funny YouTube videos. 

On the flip side, there are many ways screen time can promote feelings of stress. 

One of the big ones is managing social media – both the relationship issues that emerge and the sheer volume of things that demand their attention. I interviewed a 15 year-old girl in Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER who talked about the stress she feels from social media and all the “Snaps” (i.e., messages) she gets.

“I’ll send Streaks. At eight o’clock I’ll put my phone down, I’ll go eat breakfast. I’d come back, and I’ll have like 17 different Snaps from people. I have to make sure I’m not ignoring them. And they know I’m not ignoring them. It’s just a lot.”

While adults talk a lot about their fear that cyberbullying is a significant issue on social media platforms, far more often tw/teens tell me other ways that screen time leads them to feel stress. Here are a few of the many other examples they give: 

  • Seeing others out without them on a Snapchat story
  • Seeing the guy they like in photos with his new girlfriend
  • Seeing one image after another of the popular girls looking their best
  • Having someone open their Snapchat, so they know their message has been seen but then they don’t respond
  • Not being invited to be in a group video game or an ongoing chat group
  • Having someone not respond to a text message
  • Having someone post something snarky about a post they made
  • Having a guy repeatedly ask them for a photo, or meet them somewhere
  • Having a friend going through a hard time and they keep texting, and they feel bad saying they have to go to bed
  • Arguing with family about screen time

So often, youth tell me that immediately turning to a screen for escape is their go-to when they are feeling stressed. One 12-year-old boy said, “When I’m feeling stressed, I go on my phone, Snapchat, YouTube.”

Teens are fully aware of how using screen time to cope with stress can help in the short run but often only makes things worse. For example, when they feel stress if they have to write a paper – how easy it is to escape the feeling by watching YouTube videos, only to feel greater stress as the night gets later. They have not done work on the paper and then it just spirals, with less sleep and so forth. 

Things parents can do to help youth develop skills for stress:

  1. Help them stop and define “stress”
    We all know that “stress” is the word of the day. It gets thrown around all the time. It can be helpful to do the following when your child (or yourself) says they are feeling stressed. 
    Stop and ask:
    “Hey, I just said stress, or hey, you just said stress, what emotion is it really?”
    See what the person who said “stressed” comes up with. Maybe it is actually tired, or overscheduled, or angry about something, or perhaps even sad?
    Just doing this one step, like identifying the core emotion, gives us the ability to address it with more skill and forethought.
  2. Help them identify Challenge Stress vs. Overwhelming Stress
    How we help them to see stress in new, more helpful ways. Some degree of stress is healthy and desirable – this is often called challenge stress. But feeling overwhelmed by stressful feelings is not desirable.
    Talking about “challenge stress” vs. “overwhelming stress” is key.
    You might start by asking, “What is happening in your life that is challenging?” And then say, “There is some good stress. For example, a cross country runner might be feeling stressed about a meet on Saturday, and that keeps her making sure to practice all week. And frankly, she is excited about Saturday’s race. So the stress is a good thing – motivating her to work hard, to step into a risky situation.”
    Overwhelming stress might look like this example, a student is in three clubs, two that meet on different days before school, one after. They have several challenging classes. Meanwhile, peer issues are happening. So now they find themselves having a hard time falling asleep.
    Once they have identified what type of stress they have, challenge vs. overwhelming, then problem-solving is warranted.
  3. Let teens lead when it comes to problem-solving
    When it is overwhelming stress, ask them if they have any ideas to solve the problem. When we jump in and solve, science shows that for teens, this often can increase their level of stress. This is what I did so often with my teens, but I learned much more effective communication techniques along the way. I have learned to say these two things that have made all the difference:
    “Do you have any ideas for facing this stressful situation?”
    “I am here to brainstorm solutions whenever you want me to — just let me know.”
    If they do want your insights, still let them lead, and perhaps they will come up with answers themselves. For example, the situation above about the teen with the overwhelming stress, some solutions may include getting help in how to address the peer conflict, taking a break from one of the morning clubs, or seeing if they can swap one of the classes for one that is more enjoyable. 
  4. Show them the ways you handle your stress
    Parents have told me how surprised they were when they stopped to think about it – that they realized they rarely share their coping strategies for stress with their kids.
    My teens know that exercise is my number one stress reliever. I am not an Iron Woman athlete, but I rely on my daily dose of movement of some kind. It makes all the difference in the world for my stress levels.
    Another example is that they know that other than for texts, I have no notifications that come to me on my phone. They know that I don’t bring screens into my bedroom when going to sleep because sleep is so important to me.
  5. Ensure they have “stopping points”
    Gone are the days of “natural stopping points” because videos, online games, social platforms are all specifically designed to be an endless chain of events. That means as families, we need to create the stopping points. 
    If a 13-year-old knows that screens get put away at 9 pm, they have to learn to not keep postponing work. Having times when they need to be off social media and video games ensures they have time to recharge – such as playing with a younger sibling or helping chop vegetables at dinner time. 
  6. Teach them about Growth Mindset of Personality
    Studies have shown that teens do better with stress when they learn about how personalities are not fixed but change over time. Researchers measure their stress response during social situations after getting lessons on a growth mindset, and their stress hormones are lower than teens who did not get the lessons.

Here are some questions to get a discussion going this week:

  1. What screen time activities can relieve stress feelings?
  2. What ways can screen time contribute to stress? 
  3. What are other ways you relieve stress?

TikTok and The High of an Audience

Recently I was with a teen who was jumping up and down as she exclaimed how she now had 10,000 followers and some 400,000 views on a video she had posted on TikTok. 

What does this increased chance of quickly getting a massive number of followers and views mean for our youth? Could it be that soon, 10,000 will lose its power, just like the once exciting 100 views did in the past? Or maybe not — maybe even if it is common, we will all be seduced by the high of a truly impressive sense of eyeballs on what we are doing.

Being seen does feel good. Teens tell me that being seen (getting views and likes) makes them feel appreciated. They say that if so many people see what they post, it implies that what they are doing is worth the other person’s time — and that can feel great. 

What are the upsides and downsides of striving for online attention? 

Why do some kids and teens spend so much time posting for online attention while others do not? 

Today I’m sharing two stories of teens that I think will make for good conversations with young people in your lives. Both of these teens talk about the pros and cons of getting attention online.

A high school girl’s views on the pros and cons of online attention

Taylor Fang, a senior girl at Logan High School in Utah, recently won a writing contest. MIT Technology Review asked people 18 and under to respond to this question: “What do adults not know about my generation and technology?”

Fang writes, “Social-media platforms are among our only chances to create and shape our sense of self. Social media makes us feel seen. In our ‘Instagram biographies,’ we curate a line of emojis that feature our passions: skiing, art, debate, racing. We post our greatest achievements and celebrations. We create fake “Finsta” accounts to share our daily moments and vulnerabilities with close friends.”

She goes on to say, “When I got my first social-media account in middle school, about a year later than many of my classmates, I was primarily looking to fit in. Yet I soon discovered the sugar rush of likes and comments on my pictures. My life mattered! …I was looking not only for validation, but also for a way to represent myself. …Our selfies aren’t just pictures; they represent our ideas of self. Only through “reimagining” the selfie as a meaningful mode of self-representation can adults understand how and why teenagers use social media.”

Fang then writes about the cons of her online life. She says, “Yet by high school, this cycle of presenting polished versions of myself grew tiring… I was tired of adhering to hypervisible social codes and tokens.”

So for her, she started to do more things to foster her self identity like creative writing.

A high school boy’s experience of the pros and cons of online attention

Not long ago, I read in The New York Times another teen’s story about getting attention online. A 15-year-old boy from Pennsylvania, Rowan Winch, had been an avid social media user since middle school. He had big followings on several accounts, including his Instagram account @Zuccccccccccc with 1.2 million followers.

It took many hours a day to create these accounts – he started at 6 am, continued on the school bus, between classes, at lunch, during study hall, he would keep his social media empire running with new, memes, images and videos trying to get to 100 posts a day. 

Rowen’s primary motivation for building these popular sites was to develop his “clout.” 

He explained to the reporter that this social currency is useful in ways like opening doors for jobs, getting internships, meeting a potential girlfriend, and more.

Another benefit Rowen discussed was the money generated from ads hosted on his accounts from other teens looking to garner more followers. Some months he made as much as $10K. 

A third reason he said he loved the attention was “with @Zuccccccccccc, it felt like I had a purpose and was doing something that benefited a lot of people”.

We, parents, worry about the many downsides of a story like this i.e., Rowan’s life was ruled by his obsession with clout, he wasn’t interacting much in person with people, mostly just online, and the list goes on.

The news story highlighted another big downside of Rowan’s story, which was he was completely dependent upon one company. If that company suddenly decided to stop his accounts, there might be nothing he could do. That happened. One night he was trying to refresh his @Zuccccccccccc account when he got a message that it had been disabled. Instagram gave no reason other than the vague notice that he was “violating a policy.” 

Rowan was devastated when his account shut down. “A lot of my friends think I’ve become depressed, and I think that’s right,” Rowan said. “I’ve been feeling insecure about a lot of things, like how I look and act and talk. I talk a lot less than I used to. I’m a lot less confident. Losing my account is the main reason I feel like this.”

These teen stories bring up rich discussion points. So much of why teens are driven to post stems from this very basic human need to be seen. This reality warrants talking about personal values. For instance, what ways of being seen align with one’s core beliefs and which ones do not? As a society, how do we feel that we direct so much attention to people in entertainment, and far less to those who do amazing things to help people and help the planet, for example?  

Here are a few questions to get a conversation going. (*Consider printing this out for your discussion so the quotes in the stories can be shared while tech is away — maybe share it at a meal, during a car ride, or with your students in a classroom.) 

  1. Do you know anyone who has made a viral video or who is famous on platforms like Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube? 
  2. What do you think are all the upsides for them?
  3. What do you think would be the upsides for you? How about the downsides?