Can’t Fight This Feeling: Technology and Teen Anxiety

Why we must move beyond "is there" to "how" digital tech impacts teen anxiety.

Posted Dec 11, 2017

Emily Powell Bass/Teens Social Media
Source: Emily Powell Bass/Teens Social Media

Anxiety disorders will affect over 90 million people in their lifetime, in the U.S. alone. That’s approaching a third of our population. Yet, only a small fraction of us receive effective, long-lasting treatment. This is especially alarming given the increasing rates of teen anxiety and suicide over the past decade. News outlets like the New York Times and The Economist have been sounding the alarm. 

Over the past decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason students seek mental health counseling. The American College Health Association found that 62 percent of undergraduates in 2016 reported overwhelming anxiety. That’s up from 50 percent only five years before. The Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. has tracked incoming freshman’s stress since 1985. Since the first survey, the percentage of freshman reporting that they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” more than doubled from 18 percent in 1985 to 41 percent in 2016.

These statistics document what many of us already know: Our youth experience chronic and severe stress, worry, and anxiety and they’re not finding effective ways to cope.

Some scientists have argued from correlational evidence that these numbers are rising due to the unique demands placed on teens by social media and digital technology, such as the trade-off between screen time and in-person social interactions. For example, Jean Twenge of the San Diego State University and colleagues examined national statistics on social media use, depression, and suicide-related outcomes in over 500,000 13- to 18-year-olds. Teens who spent more time on smartphones and social media reported more mental health issues, whereas those who spent more time on non-screen activities like face-to-face interactions, sports, and religious services reported fewer.

This research paper and others have been rightly critiqued for drawing too strong causal conclusions (that social media causes mental health issues) from what is correlational data. At the same time, these concerns are real and immediate. Smartphones and social media are now an integral part of the social landscape of teens today, and we are faced with difficult questions: Should we be concerned that teens post suicidal thoughts on blogs rather than talking directly to parents and friends—or just feel relieved that they are telling someone? Is there a problem with the fact that, for many teens, it seems ok to break up a romantic relationship over text? Have the constant social comparisons built into social media like Facebook-driven teen anxiety to these unprecedented levels?

One thing is certain: Social media and digital technology must have an impact on our emotional lives because our social lives—whether analog or digital—always do. Therefore, the question becomes not “is there an impact?” but “how, why, and under what conditions is there an impact?”

Few would argue that there are real social benefits to smartphones—we can reach more people, more quickly than ever before. But we often fail to see that because social media and face-to-face interactions are not interchangeable, digital communication can directly fuel anxiety in ourselves and our teens. The more teens mediate social connection through digital devices, the more superficial and impoverished their social experiences are. Like any skill, this lack of practice stunts abilities that build emotional resilience, like emotion regulation, coping, and social-emotional communication. This is a recipe for greater stress, worries, and anxiety.

Another problem is that smartphones allow teens to avoid direct human contact as well as uncertainty and discomfort. Teens may be drawn to digital forms of communication and social media because they give the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Face-to-face interactions require immediate attention; smartphones allow us to escape uncomfortable emotions and conversations indefinitely. We may even start to believe that technology can insulate us from bad things. When teens consistently avoid uncertainty and discomfort, they lose opportunities to develop grit and determination.  What happens when bad things actually happen? Teens are more likely to be gripped by anxiety, worry, and stress.

How can we motivate teens to use smartphones and social media less often?

Recent research on empathy and compassion suggests that we can motivate more in-person connection by highlighting its benefits, such as helping meet future goals and aspirations. An interesting approach to this is the “bored, but brilliant” movement, arguing that detaching from our devices and spending time being mindful and tuned in not only makes us more brilliantly creative and productive but inoculates us against an anxious, jittery mind. So, with good reason, we can tell our teens, “don’t escape the boring bits.”

Teens are also more aware of the attention economy, that technology companies like Facebook have sold us a more “open and connected world” but have done so by highjacking and selling our attention.  In my lab, we are launching a new study called the Teen Attention and Brain Study to study how changes in how we pay attention to the world can drive anxiety. Teens are aware of the pressure and worries that come with digital technology. With more knowledge, they may be motivated to make new choices.

Teens have immense power. When they make new choices—to detach from devices more often, to use social media differently, or to join the ranks of teens who reject social media—technology companies will have to follow suit.