Marcia Caton, PhD, is a Freeport resident with expertise in education, parenting, and social media’s impact on families.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that suicide attempts among adolescents have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, with a particularly alarming spike among girls -- 51% vs. 3.7% to boys.
A source of anxiety for many adolescents during the pandemic has been the sudden separation from friends and extended family caused by pandemic-mandated lockdowns, leading to feelings of isolation and loneliness. On July 22, 2021, CNN reported that "the pandemic has pushed children's mental health and access to care to a crisis point." This statement points to the scarcity of resources for mental health. Anxiety can be a precursor to depression and suicide attempts.
One unique reason for anxiety in teens has been the omnipresent smartphone with its buzzing, vibrating, and beeping social media notifications and texts, coupled with fear of missing out. Dr. Jean Twenge, author and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, suggests in a 2015 study that the rising use of social media impacts mental health. Besides, the findings reveal that depression and suicide-related outcomes increased between 2010 and 2015, especially among females, concurrent with increased use of smartphones among youth. One explanation for the spike in depression is that unlimited screen time could cause less emotionally satisfying relationships, leading to a threatening sense of isolation.
Teen suicide is strongly associated with cyberbullying. Over the years, we have heard the heart-wrenching stories of cyberbullied teens who became hopeless and took their lives. Audrie Pott committed suicide in 2012 after being sexually assaulted by four boys at a party, who posted pictures of the incident online. In addition, in 2021, Riley Basford befriended a girl on Facebook, to whom he sent embarrassing photos. Subsequently, she tried to blackmail him for $3,500.
The dire shortage of mental health specialists in schools and family practice, coupled with chronic underinvestment in training more specialists, reduces the availability of mental health services. Parents can fill the gap by assisting their young-adult children in managing anxiousness aroused by virtual and offline worlds:
1. Chat regularly with teens about healthy ways to use social media. Some healthy habits include engaging in offline activities, putting away the smartphone at least an hour before bedtime, and participating in phone-free meals.
2. Take a walk together. Some teens may find it easier to talk about their feelings outside of the home when they do not maintain eye contact. It would be helpful if you listened more than speaking. Your adolescents may not want to problem-solve; they may want to be heard and accepted.
3. Create a healthy eating schedule. Achieving this may be difficult because teens often have poor eating habits. Nonetheless, if teens eat erratically, their brain chemicals may become uneven, impacting feelings and behaviors.
4. Speak to your adolescents about cyberbullying and share with them the following steps to respond to cyberbullying: Stay calm, take a deep breath, walk away from the device, and do not engage with the cyberbully, because the cyberbully wants to infuriate and aggravate you. Instead of falling into the cyberbully’s trap, take a screenshot of the abuse and share it with a trusted adult.
5. Establish a weekly activity with your youth, such as cooking a meal together.
Some apps specifically support teen mental health:
Teens' mental health challenges will not disappear in the future. Therefore, parents should support youth by remaining proactive in assisting teens during this challenging time.