Anxiety

The Power to Protect Our Daughters

New research helps us keep girls safe on social media.

Posted Sep 18, 2019

The title of this blog post is determinedly incendiary, implying that parents, teachers, and citizens might not have the power to do something elemental: Protect our children. Do we have that power?  Do we collectively and individually assert the power to change what is happening with our girls?

I ask because people come up to me at conferences or write emails with some version of: “I want to curtail her social media use, but I don’t know if I can—she’s already so invested in it.  I do realize her constant social media use is unhealthy for her brain development, and I see her suffering anxiety, depression, loneliness, but I don’t want her to feel left out—that’s her big fear, too–so I give in.  Who needs the battle?  I just hope she’ll be okay.”

As a parent of two daughters, I understand the battle.  Girls operate from an intimacy imperative:  they measure their own self-development in large part by their relationships, and social media is all about relationships. But still, the American Pediatric Association, the American Medical Association, and many of us in our own research and service organizations argue, “It’s time to take back our power on this important child development issue.”

Good and Bad News

In most ways today we could say our girls are doing better than ever.  The World Health Organization acknowledged this worldwide in 2015, noting that health and longevity outcomes for females have now surpassed males (even with negative sexual assault and sex trafficking numbers factored in).   There’s a lot of good news, but the bad is bad.

A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 36% of girls report being extremely anxious every day. This is a significant increase in baseline numbers in just a few years.  Our children’s brains are growing, evolving; if, as the brain grows, it locks in anxiety responses, it gradually alters its activity toward that anxiety.

What happens is this: the activity and connectivity of the anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, ventral striatum, caudate nucleus, and other parts of the brain get “rewired,” in part, by heightened cortisol (“stress response”) chemistry. The rewiring goes “towards” anxiety rather than away from it. It is as if the brain, knowing it doesn’t want to be anxious, meanwhile increases the ways it can be anxious. This accommodates elemental feelings of fear the brain is experiencing in a vicious cycle as it grows.

There are various reasons for increased female anxiety—social pressures, school pressures, family pressures—but the one that is nearly universal now is the one about which parents have given up their power.

The Pew Research Center reported in 2018 that 95 percent of teen girls have access to a smartphone. The think tank Common Sense Media found in that same year that teens spend 6-to-9 hours per day online. Most of these teens sense they are being conformed toward social media “addiction.”

Using the word does not necessarily mean the child fits a Diagnostic Manual “addiction” diagnosis but since, according to Pew, 72 percent of teens feel manipulated by tech companies into being constantly connected, they often do become connected in ways that disallow other occupations and successes developmentally.

To call this an “addiction” may be inaccurate for many of these girls, but to call it an “unhealthy dependency” is quite accurate. The brain gets rewired during the gradual execution of the dependency on its neural development.

Unhealthy Dependency Is Bad Enough

For this reason, we must reframe our parental ideas about protecting kids. Something does not have to be an addiction to be “bad enough.” As a parent and professional, I think it’s time to allow the term “unhealthy dependency” to rule the conversation.

How Do You Know if You Need to Assert Your Power?

One way of gauging your daughter’s dependency on devices and social media is to answer this question:  While doing homework or other similar important tasks, is my daughter also multi-tasking between texting, online stimulus, You Tube videos, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.? If so, your daughter may fit the 6-to-9 hours per day online ratio and is likely dependent on social media in a potentially dangerous way.

But not all girls (and boys) who spend their time on social media suffer anxiety. That is true. If one of your daughters is becoming anxious (especially in the tweens and teens), she likely has genetic markers for anxiety. Her DNA may be set up for her adolescent hormonology to trigger potential for depression or anxiety, and/or for external factors to push the trigger.

For any child, excessive use of social media can be brain-dangerous, but if her DNA is already set up for early, middle, or late adolescent onset of anxiety, depression, or other similar conditions, social media is even more dangerous.  It acts on dopamine and paralimbic systems in ways that can affect mental health.

Going Deeper

Brain effects are not just direct effects as the child uses social media, but character and life-style conforming effects, as well.  Each of these affect social-emotional development and can affect mental health.

Since smartphones entered our children’s lives system in 2007, University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future project researchers have found that girls have “dramatically decreased” time spent at malls, with friends, at movies with friend, getting exercise, and out in nature.  Each of these decreases in physical, cognitive, and relational activity affects the brain. A 2018 Cigna study showed higher levels of loneliness in today’s girls than ever before in history—and most of the girls studied were busy on social media.

Anxious girls often come to emphasize solitary activities like movies in their bedrooms while texting with another girl; more time online and on You Tube than out with friends; more time surfing social media than doing each other’s hair, trying on each other’s clothes, playing soccer with friends.

Our girls’ new kind of loneliness can deceive parents: We think our girls are not lonely because they are “connecting” via their phones or devices—but their “connections,” while seemingly stimulating to brain development, are weak in most ways.

And the cycle continues as social media exacerbates the anxiety of “not being liked,” which feeds anxiety genes—triggering those genes in some cases that would not have been triggered otherwise. If you have younger girls and someone in your family has struggled with depression or anxiety before, you can protect your daughter, potentially, from triggering the genetics by vigilance regarding social media.

Whether your daughter becomes an anxious teen or not, it’s crucial to remember that lowered levels of human contact (false or weak relational attachment through social media) can decrease resilience and self-esteem. Connected but disconnected, dependent on a kind of relationship that is incomplete (yet visually and constantly overstimulated by that very kind of relationship), our girls are not building boundaries, problem solving, building resilience, building a self, controlling instant-gratification and relational impulsiveness, and generally maturing.

The American College Health Association in 2011 found that 31 percent of college women had an overwhelming panic/anxiety attack in their freshman year but by 2016, the number was 62 percent. The only thing that consistently shifted in female development in that span of years was social media/digital use.

Is more anxiety and depression between pre-puberty and late adolescence what we want for our girls?

Five actions you can take to save your daughters will follow in Part 2.

References

Gurian, Michael, The Minds of Girls, GI Press, 2018.

Lindsey M. Roberts, “Expert Recommendations for a Child’s First Phone, from Basic to Smart,” The Washington Post, August 24, 2019.

Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam, “The Lonely Burden of Today’s Teenage Girls,” The Wall Street Journal, August 17-18, 2019.

Rachel Ehmke, “What Selfies are Doing to Girls’ Self-Esteem,” The Child Mind Institute, June 25, 2019, online. https://childmind.org/article/what-selfies-are-doing-to-girls-self-esteem/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=READ%20MORE&utm_campaign=Weekly-06-25-19