We live in anxious times — and I’m not referring to the politics dividing the country. Or the mass shootings. Or the tsunami of rape and sexual harassment accusations aimed at Hollywood moguls and other high-ranking men.
I’m referring to the bite-your-nails, can’t-get-to-sleep, hyperventilating-before-a-big-test anxiety many teens are experiencing when they stagger and stumble into adulthood. As we spend more time online, as we measure our worth by “Likes” earned and “Followers” captured, our young people (and the not-so-young rest of us) are developing a skewed view of life.
On the screen, existence is filtered through a rose-colored lens. No one posts a photo where they’re not looking their best, unless, of course, it’s some kind of obnoxious humblebrag. (Check social media if you doubt.) In the virtual world the messiness of existence has been scrubbed out. Parties are joyous, friends loyal, scenery breathtaking, clothes fashionable, food gourmet, travel exotic. In short, life is fabulous.
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The tough daily slog all of us face? Since that doesn’t translate well on Facebook or Instagram, our plugged-in children see mostly sham and charade.
But because reality is relentless and unforgiving, sooner or later the unavoidable happens. Our young people compare their very real lives to the make-believe of screen — and they find theirs falling short. They grow apprehensive and fretful, for the chasm between pretend and real often looms insurmountable.
No wonder teachers are reporting more anxious students and college counselors are warning that young adults are overwhelmed emotionally and mentally. The American College Health Association reported a big jump in undergraduates feeling “overwhelming anxiety,” from 50 percent in 2011 to 62 percent in 2016. And a recent New York Times story revealed that high school administrators are seeing more anxious students in school, too.
Anxiety is now the most common mental-health disorder in the U.S., affecting nearly one-third of adolescents and adults. It’s also the most common reason students seek counseling in college.
Certainly we can’t blame the Age of Anxiety on social media alone. Storm clouds were gathering long before Facebook or YouTube took over our lives. So many other factors make modern life a labyrinth where unreasonable expectations and too many choices nibble away at our peace of mind. With our kids, there’s always one other extracurricular activity to tack on to the college résumé or one more AP class to add to an already packed class schedule. Don’t forget shoehorning the private SAT tutor and the strength endurance coach, either. We want to ensure our children have a bright future, regardless of emotional or financial cost.
For a long time I subscribed to the widely held belief that today’s teens were too coddled, too fragile, too managed and too scheduled. They lacked the resilient oomph of my generation. I blamed permissive, overprotective parents. Now I realize this was an oversimplification. These kids have come of age at a time when technology is transforming everything at a dizzying pace, when terrorism incidents and mass shootings are far too common, and when an economy that favors the rich keeps middle-class families struggling.
Thanks to ubiquitous screens, adolescents have a front-row seat to all this disruption.
As parents, we must balance pushing too hard with making life easier for our kids, balance our desire to rescue with the need for them to learn life’s hard lessons. The path isn’t always clear, and I write this from experience. We shouldn’t — and can’t — promise our children perpetual happiness, nor protect them from the common irritations that make up everyday life.
But I wonder if, in this hyper-connected world, we shouldn’t also make a special effort to remind them that life as presented on Instagram and Snapchat is two-dimensional and about as real as shape-shifters and fire-breathing beasts.