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  • Writer's pictureDillon Kalkhurst

Generation Stress: Mental Illness, a Silent Epidemic

Yesterday was Valentines Day. The day of LOVE! It was also Ash Wednesday, a Christian day of peace and the first day of Lent. It was also the day a mentally ill 19-year-old stole seventeen lives in a shooting rampage in a South Florida school. I have worked with schools, parents, and students for twenty-plus years. I've experienced several generations of parents and students grow and learn through their k-12 schools. I've visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on numerous occasions. Yesterday ripped my heart out.

While every news station is featuring their Monday morning quarterbacks talking about what should have happened to prevent this tragedy, I firmly plant the blame on the teen mental health crisis.


I wrote about "Generation Stress: Mental Illness, a Silent Epidemic" in the Gen Z chapter of my book, Intergenerational Engagement: Understanding the Five Generations in Today's Economy.

While I would love for you to buy my book, I think it is important for everyone to understand what's happening with our youngest generation. With that said, I have posted the section on my blog for everyone to access for FREE. It is longer than a typical blog post, but it is an essential read especially for parents raising teens, educators teaching kids, and anyone that works closely with Generation Z. I hope you learn something and share it widely.

The following excerpt is from the book Intergenerational Engagement: Understanding the Five Generations in Today's Economy by Dillon Knight Kalkhurst

Generation Z - The iGen

Born After 1995

"Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days. When our momma sang us to sleep, but now we're stressed out. Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days. When our momma sang us to sleep, but now we're stressed out.

We're stressed out."

"Stressed Out" - Twenty-One Pilots

Generation Stress: Mental Illness, a Silent Epidemic

In our intergenerational engagement consulting, most of our work focuses on helping Gen X, and Baby Boomer corporate leaders learn how to recruit, engage, inspire, and retain Millennial employees. In my conversations with human resource directors, the topic of their Millennial employee's challenges with anxiety, depression, and mental health almost always comes up. It is true that many Millennials are struggling with work-related anxiety and depression, primarily caused by disconnected work environments that are not addressing their most basic personal needs and aspirations. Other causes can be attributed to the way they were brought up, as discussed in the previous chapter. Some may argue that Millennials lack the soft skills required to thrive in traditional workplace settings.

Thanks to smartphones and social media, mental health challenges have been dramatically magnified with iGens. Many, including myself, believe that mental illness is a silent epidemic, especially for teens and young adults. While there has been some progress in the areas of awareness and treatment, there is still a lot of negative social stigma around the topic of mental illness. Even with the National Institute of Mental Health finding that 50 percent of all students age 14 and older with a mental illness drop out of school, risk-averse school districts are slow to respond, often not offering ample support networks until after one of their students commits suicide.

The NIMH statistics are telling. One in five youth suffer from a diagnosed mental health condition like anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. As many as 80 percent of adolescents indicate that they have experienced some form of mild to moderate anxiety or depression. While there are a host of internal and external causes of mental illness, many have blamed smartphones and social media for elevating the problem. Fifty percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, about four years after the average iGen receives their first smartphone and two years after they can "legally" obtain social media accounts from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others.

There is compelling evidence that screen time is a major contributing factor to elevated mental health issues. The National Institute of Drug Abuse funds the "Monitoring the Future" survey. The survey has asked 12th graders over 1,000 questions per year since 1991. Some of the questions are designed to assess how happy teens are. The survey also asks how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities. Some of the activities they ask about are non-screen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise. In recent years, they have also been asking about screen-based activities like using social media, texting, playing video games, and searching the internet. The results are clear and telling. Teens that spend an above average amount of time with screen-based activities are more likely to be unhappy. Teens that spend more time than average on non-screen activities are happier.

Tom Kersting is a renowned psychotherapist, long-time high school counselor, and author of the book "Disconnected." Kersting's new book explores the device-dependent world our children live in and how it is impacting their mental and emotional well-being. He discusses research that shows that spending too much time in the cyber world is rewriting kids' brains and affecting their ability to flourish in the real world as anxiety, depression, and attention issues soar. In a recent conversation with Kersting, he told me he has counseled more middle-school aged children for major anxiety disorders in the past year than he has over the past sixteen years combined. Kersting and many others are convinced screen-time is to blame.

The average teen is spending nine hours per day in front of a screen. This is more than any other activity, including sleep. Kersting says, "This is a perfect storm. The human brain cannot handle nine hours of any activity, much less activities that thrust you into a virtual world that is constantly telling you that you are not good enough. Nine hours a day, 63 hours per week, 3,276 hours per year. The equivalent of 136 days, or a third of the year, disengaged from reality and comparing themselves to others. Kersting says, "All this is happening when children's minds are developing. It will have lasting impacts on their futures."

In "Disconnected," Kersting discusses how screen time physiologically changes your brain, and how the social media companies know that. They are not your friend. Kersting asks, "Because kids of this generation spend so much time using powerful electronic devices, their brains were changing, something known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections, leaving behind past traits and developing new ones. Could all of this "screen time" be changing kids' brains, thereby causing older children to display inattentiveness, lack of focus, and disorganization - all symptoms of ADHD?"

In Kersting's home state of New Jersey, where he is a high school counselor, he tells me about the state's focus on the one-to-one model. One-to-one is when every student in a school, or school district, has a laptop or portable screen. This is a monumental push throughout public education. School districts are very "me too" driven. They often look at what other districts are doing and strive to do the same. This is discussed in greater detail in the Education chapter.

While I am not going to debate the effectiveness of every child having a laptop, Kersting maintains that this is a disaster. "Research proves again and again that children, and adults for that matter, learn better with pen, paper, and a focus on the teaching. When every child is head down in a laptop in the classroom, it is impossible for them to focus on the teacher." When I spoke at the National Principals Conference in 2017, I noticed that a lot of the subject matter was on technology and ed-tech. In the exhibition hall, there were over 300 companies trying to get educators to buy their products and services. Over two-thirds of those companies were tech-based.

I believe ed-tech can provide some wonderful new solutions to the everyday problems that educators are facing. In full disclosure, many of our clients are Israeli and Silicon Valley-based ed-tech companies. I also believe in the power of reading a book, taking notes with a pen and paper, and intently listening to a compelling lecturer. There are very expensive private schools that feel the same way.

New York University professor, Adam Alter, author of "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked," discusses The Waldorf School in Silicon Valley. The Waldorf School has 160 locations and they proudly shun the use of technology.

Alter says in his book, "There's a school in Silicon Valley that doesn't allow the use of any tech. It's called the Waldorf School and it's fascinating because the school has no computers, no iPads, and no iPhones. They try to minimize tech altogether; therefore, people enjoy a lot of time face-to-face and they also go outside a lot. What's interesting about this school is that 75% of the students there are the children of Silicon Valley tech execs. This is striking. These are people who, publicly, will expound on the wonders of the products they're producing, and, at the same time, they decided in all their wisdom that their kids didn't belong in a school that used that same tech." Apparently, many Silicon Valley execs also believe technology may not be the end-all solution to their own children's education, but they are more than willing to push it on yours. Parents beware.

Since 2012, the "Monitoring the Future Survey" found that all screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness. There is not a single exception. The survey found that eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours per week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who spend less of their leisure time interacting on social media. Even those who spend just six hours per week are 47 percent more likely to be miserable. The survey also found the exact opposite to be true for those teens who spend an above average amount of time hanging out with their friends in person. They are 20 percent less likely to say they are unhappy than those who hang out with friends less.

iGens that spend the most time on social media sites are the most likely to admit that they feel lonely as well. They often feel left out of things and say they "wish they had more good friends." Teen's feelings of loneliness peaked in 2013, after the 2012 smartphone boom and have remained high since.

Feeling unhappy and lonely is a recipe for depression. Social media enabled "FOMO" or "fear of missing out" can trigger severe social and anticipatory anxiety. Today's teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time socializing in person. When they do party in person or hangout together, they document every second on Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. If you weren't invited to the party, you know it instantly, and that can trigger intense FOMO, anxiety, and depression. FOMO is more serious and damaging for girls. In the survey, 48 percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys. This makes sense because girls use social media more often, giving them more opportunities to experience FOMO when they see their classmates and friends doing things together without them.

The anxiety and depression triggered by social media not only occurs when teens are reading other's posts, it happens when they post themselves as well. Many iGens feel their popularity is elevated or diminished based on the number of "likes" or comments they receive on their social media posts. When Gen Xers were teens, popularity was mostly based on looks, social status, and whether you were voted onto the homecoming court or elected class president. It took a lot of work back then to gain that popularity status and it's no different today. Teens will put an enormous amount of effort into building their social status, making sure they are "posting" their right foot forward.

Today, those with the most social media "friends" and those who get the most "likes" are the most popular. I have seen teens in the schools I work in post something on social media and check it every ten seconds to monitor the number of likes, comments, and shares. The quest is to be part of the "100 Club." Yes, that is a thing. You gain admittance into the 100 club if all of your social media posts reach a minimum of 100 likes. iGens will regularly delete a post that doesn't reach 100 likes in a short amount of time because it makes them look less popular. Social media posts that don't get a lot of "likes" can make teens feel rejected. Over time, repeated feelings of social media rejection can lead to depression and anxiety.

I live close to the beach near a popular spring break destination in Florida. I am always amused by watching groups of teens, usually girls, standing in the waves posing for the perfect "selfie." It almost looks like a mini-photoshoot. They will take a selfie and gather around the phone to look at the result. "Not good enough!" They group together again, and again until they all agree "that's the one." Then one of the girls posts the perfectly executed selfie on Instagram and "tags" her friends. After all, they were there and not "left out."

iGens extreme focus on posting the perfect photos creates a fake reality. I like to call it "fakebook." The "fakebook" lives that teens go out of their way to broadcast to the world are a major contributor to iGen's mental health crisis. The average iGen is forced to compare everyone else's highlight reels to their reality. It can be a constant reminder that everyone you know is prettier, happier, having more fun, and is more popular than you. It's simply not true, but perception is reality for many iGens and that can be very depressing and damaging.

Another iGen trend is that they are getting less sleep during a time of their lives that they need it most. The National Sleep Foundation says teens should get about nine hours of sleep per night. A teen who is getting less than seven hours of sleep per night is significantly sleep deprived. The Monitoring the Future survey found that 57 percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. Jean Twenge interviewed hundreds of iGen teens and discussed what they did with their smartphones when they went to bed. Those of us who are raising teens today, will not be surprised by her findings.

Nearly all of the teens Twenge interviewed admitted that they sleep with their phones, putting them under their pillow, on the mattress, or at the very least, within arm's reach of the bed. To their credit, most of them used their phones as alarm clocks, but checking social media was the primary task. They checked social media before they went to sleep, and it was the first thing they reached for when they woke the next day. Their phone is the last thing they see before they fall asleep and the first thing they see when they wake up. If they wake during the middle of the night, they often check it then as well.

There is evidence that screen time negatively affects quality of sleep. Of all screens, the smartphone is the worst culprit because they project "blue light" which emulates daylight and reduces the body's ability to produce melatonin, nature's sleep aid. If most teens are sleeping with their phones and taking in high doses of blue light right before bed, this must be affecting their sleep. Note, this is a serious issue for iGens and Millennials, but it is also affecting older generations as well. I know a beautiful Gen Xer, who will remain nameless, that sleeps with her iPhone one foot from our, urrr, her head at night.

Sleep deprivation is linked to a host of issues, including compromised thinking and reasoning, increased illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure. Those who don't get enough sleep are much more prone to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Could smartphones be causing teens to lose sleep, which then leads to depression? Or maybe it is the other way around, with the smartphones causing the depression which leads to sleep deprivation. Regardless, the smartphone with its blue light and audible alerts is likely playing a role in both.

The effects of increased screen time on iGens cannot be ignored. The more time teens spend on their smartphones, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression and anxiety. Eighth graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent. Teens that focus their leisure time on non-screen after school activities like playing sports, participating in service clubs, reading books, or even doing homework more than the average teen, cut their depression risks significantly.

A sobering consequence of higher depression and anxiety in teens is a higher incidence of teen suicide. The percentage of teens attempting suicide over the last decade has increased significantly for both sexes; however, teen girl's recent suicide rates have been climbing faster than boys. Three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls committed suicide in 2015 as in 2007. The suicide success rate for boys remains higher primarily because they tend to use more lethal methods, but the girls are catching up fast. The dramatic rise in iGen girl suicides could be attributed to cyberbullying, as we discussed earlier, which tends to affect girls more than boys.

Here's a stunning statistic that indirectly captures the connection between iGen's social isolation and suicide: Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has dropped, but the suicide rate has climbed. As teens have started to spend more time alone in their rooms and less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, but more likely to kill themselves. In 2012, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.

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