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Have Smartphones Caused a Mental-Health Crisis in Today’s Teens?

A conversation about the rise of anxiety in children and teens in the omnipresence of screens, smartphones, and social media.

An interview with Kathleen Goodman by Jaime Rossignol

I sat down with one of our guest panelists who spoke after our screening of LIKE, a documentary that explores the impact of social media in our lives. Kathleen Goodman is a Seattle-based therapist who specializes in counseling children and teens.

What is your background and how did you get into counseling adolescents and children?

My undergrad is in something completely different. I was a Communication and Marketing major and when I graduated, I when back to Charlotte, NC my hometown. I was working in marketing, but I also volunteered as a tutor at my old high school. I loved it so much that I came to the conclusion that I wanted to work with kids. I knew I didn’t want to be a classroom teacher, but I wanted to do counseling. I went to Vanderbilt and got my Masters in School Counseling. I then worked for 10 years as a school counselor in Tennessee and Georgia and then Seattle, before opening my private practice.

The iGen Generation

According to Jean M. Twenge’s 2017 article in The Atlantic, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, “Rates of suicide have skyrocketed since 2011…the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever.”

Have you noticed a drastic shift in teens’ mental health within the last decade?

When I moved to Seattle to work at a private girls’ middle and high school from 2016-2018, that’s where I really began to learn about all these apps, like ask.fm, kik, and no one was on Facebook because everyone’s parents were on Facebook. As a counselor, I would lead lessons on what we called Digital Citizenship, students think about how they were communicating online. There is this barrier that the screen provides, and so often I would pull statements from posts that parents would send me of mean things that were being sent to their daughters [online]. I would print them out on paper and say, “ok, why don’t you say this to her face?” And they would be like, “oh! Ms. Goodman, I can’t…that’s mean.” What is different, and this is one thing that I read about in Ana Homayoun’s book Social Media Wellness, you lose empathy with technology. In that scenario, where students read strips of paper, they could see the hurt in someone’s eyes, tears welling up. They could see that and they could feel that, because that is empathy. But when you are not sitting face-to-face, and it is over text or a screen, you do not have that reaction. The screen is a barrier.

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iGen Pyramid, Source: David Lancy, Psychology Today

Studies show that this current generation of adolescents is safer physically, but harmed mentally, as they are not connected emotionally.

One of the biggest things is altered expectations. People post what you want to see. Teens and adults are the same. I hear mothers say, “she looks like she can do everything with three children and her house is never a disaster.” But, it’s like, well, that’s the image.

It’s a curated life.

Exactly. It is like the work I used to do as a school counselor. We looked at Photoshop in magazines and I would talk with teens about how that is not really what that model looks like, and they Photoshop her to make her neck look longer, or whatever. Nowadays, I try to help teens realize that in social media the images are curated. There is the perspective that everyone else has their life together, except me.

So, what can teens do to curb those feelings that lead to anxiety?

There’s that feeling that so-and-so takes the same classes I do, also plays basketball and is applying to good colleges, but I can just barely get through my day. There is a fascinating movie called 8th Grade, which follows a girl who posts videos about how to be confident and her online presence was so vastly different from her day-to-day presence where she was terrified of being at a class party. That is what I work with a lot of teens on. When you think of yourself in real life, what would be three adjectives that you would use to describe you? Then pull up your Instagram, and what are three adjectives? How are those incongruent, or not?

Connected, IRL?

Dr. Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.

What outcomes arise in that recognition of real life me is not online me? How do we help teens develop healthier relationships with their phones?

A lot of times teens are curating their images based upon what gets the most likes, and that is where they are getting their values from. So, then it becomes a conversation of, What do you value? and the idea of authenticity. Dr Brené Brown’s, Empathy vs. Sympathy video resonates with students. That is the piece that is missing with technology: empathy. And being in connection. We need to create more spaces for teens to build community.

Do you see this as a mental health crisis?

I see how it all comes together. The altered expectations, the always on mentality, getting your values from what people like on your feed creates that anxiety.

It’s all about Sleep & Mindfulness

What do you think is the number one thing we can do to assist teens with the balancing act?

I think sleep is the biggest. I am a huge advocate of smartphones not in the bedroom. Teens like to make excuses, like they use them for their alarm, but you can buy an analogue alarm clock for $5.

Are they open to that?

Some students’ teachers give extra credit for going a week without taking their phone to bed, and they have actually reported feeling less on edge. There is a lot of research about melatonin and the phone’s blue light decreasing the body’s natural sleep aid. I am a big fan of finding another way to unwind before bed that is not looking at your phone or computer. Even watching TV is more relaxing for freeing the mind, than being on the phone. The hour before you go to sleep, put the phone away.

This unconscious urge, is there an alternative replacement?

I always just say change the scenery. Walk, move around, get outside, clean, pet your dog, talk to your parents. Do something for 10 minutes and see if you still feel that urge. It’s all about that mind-body connection. One of my favorite mindfulness activities is called 5-4-3-2-1. After taking a few deep breaths, ask yourself what are 5 things you see, what are 4 things you hear, what are 3 things you touch, what are 2 things you smell, what is 1 thing you taste. It gets them in that moment, and usually that instant urge is not there anymore.

In your current private practice, have you had to change any of your therapeutic approaches as a result of the impacts of social media?

I have definitely seen more social anxiety than when I first started. One of my very first questions that I ask any teen I see, whether it is for anxiety or not, is about sleep. The Atlantic article and so many books, including Under Pressure, by Lisa Damour, Ph.D, talk about the importance of sleep. You can handle most of what life throws at you when you have had a good night’s sleep. But when you haven’t, you’re frazzled. So many teenagers are sleep deprived, that continues to fuel the anxiety. One thing I have had to change in my approach is, there is this on-edgeness that is like you always have to be on. My teens talk to me about how they can never get away from it. So, I do a lot of mindfulness work for kids, and what does it mean to be present and still, and to quiet the thought patterns.

How do you coach teens through the process of mindfulness?

There is an app that I use called Moment, which tracks how many times you pick up your smartphone and the percentage of the day on the phone. Practice being mindful of what is at the route of reaching for that phone? Is it boredom? Is it loneliness? Is it frustration or excitement? Then we can dive deeper beneath the surface of “my mom says I use my phone too much,” to what are those feelings. When you have that urge, ask yourself, what am I feeling right now?

Social Media and Identity

We as humans need our tribes. We need affirmation. Where does that come from for today’s teens, if not from social media?

Exactly. There are friends on social media who are friends IRL. What do you do with those friends? What is it about them? I have a survey of 10 different qualities you look for in a friend. Clients rank the most and the least important qualities they look for in a friend—like trustworthy, honest, number of Instagram followers, wears the coolest clothes. The top 3 are always something like “listens to me,” “is loyal,” “is trustworthy.” “Fun” will sometimes be one of the top 3. But it is never anything related to what someone looks like, what someone wears, their followers, where they have traveled. They have this need, and I think for schools, where do you create communities? I think that is why athletics are so important for kids, because that is like their tribe. Or, drawing, music, yoga classes. I tell kids, I go to the same yoga class weekly, and we are a community. We show up, the same day, same time, see the same people, there are some new ones, but there is a good core of people. And that is a community.

What kind of impact does social media have on identity?

From a psycho-social standpoint, there is a theorist, Eric Erickson, who has documented the time period of adolescence, 12-18, you are figuring out who you are. But I think now, you have access to who am I, but it is I should be this, because that gets the most likes. Instead of the question being about figuring it out, they are filling in the blanks based on what comments, likes and messages are coming through their social media. There is pressure to feel like I have to have it all figured out.

What are the long term repercussions?

Perfectionism. Fearing of making mistakes. What I loved when I toured your campus and saw the gravity car project that student was working on in his math class, that is a great example of the love of learning. What you love learning about and doing often is what you are going to do for your life. I have clients who love art, but say, “oh, my parents say you can’t make any money being an artist.” But I counter that there a lot of career opportunities if you are creative and have spatial awareness. Interior design, graphic design, architecture…Explore what you are interested in. The more kids that can get out there and meet people who have different types of jobs, the more they are like this is really cool.

It’s All about Modeling

Given teens are likely to rebel against their parents’ setting boundaries on screen usage, how do you help families to instill balance?

The phone is the worst thing ever, is such a losing battle. What I hear, the teens that feel the most supported, it’s all about modeling. Families can hold each other accountable. No phones at the dinner table—and that goes for everyone including the adults. One of my favorite things is asking, “what would it be like if you slept through the night without being woken up by your phone? Kids are like, “oh, that would be great!” What it does is fuels that anxiety to not want to go to school. If there is something that happened in the middle of the night and it is all over group texts, they do not want to go to school and avoidance feeds anxiety.

Is a radical shift to unplugging necessary?

A lot of times it is something unconscious. That is why I like to do mindfulness work. Then you can consider, what are my choices. I am feeling wronged. What would make it better? Maybe if I got outside and got some fresh air. What would make it worse? Scrolling through Instagram.

Teens recognize that their phone usage is not necessarily good for them. So, what is the buy-in?

There is so much about wanting to be accepted and included with peers. It is not FOMO, it is more about this is how people are belonging. So it is hard. That is why it is so important to find your tribe. If you have people who really get you, they are not going to be angry at you if you didn’t respond. It’s about boundaries and that is something that resonates with adults too—you set up boundaries at work just like you set boundaries with friends, your phone, significant others. Essentially, the phone is another relationship, so how can you set boundaries with that?

It is interesting to think about the phone as a living entity.

One of the most interesting things I have found in my teaching around active listening, is you’re going to listen and not talk for two minutes. Your partner is going to talk about whatever they want for 2 minutes; you listen without interjecting anything. Just listen. I don’t think 2 minutes is a long time, but for them, 2 minutes is a long time. Because it is that connection. You are being present. You are not interjecting and changing it. You are there with them. In every case, inevitably at least one person was in tears, because they felt it was the first time anyone had ever seen them.

Human interaction is powerful. You do not get that from a phone for sure.


About the Author

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Jaime Rossignol, Director of Admissions and Outreach, Fusion Academy, Seattle

Jaime is a longtime Seattle resident, who has worked with students of all ages and abilities in Seattle area private and public schools for over 17 years. Her passion for facilitating creative learning environments in which students can thrive at their own pace led her to Fusion. When she is not on campus, Jaime cherishes opportunities to adventure outside--boating, sailing, skiing, hiking, camping, drawing, photographing, and enjoying the sounds, sights, and smells of nature.

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