Recently published articles in the New York Times, New York Daily News, and Cambridge University Press have garnered much attention for their reports on the dramatic rise of teenage anxiety, depression, and suicide across all socioeconomic levels. Causes cited for this increase vary, but the consensus seems to be that infantilization of American adolescents combined with multifarious and negative influences of technology have led to a high level of emotional distress in our youth. The impact of social media alone has been blamed for inhibiting the ability of teens to form deep, interpersonal relationships, fueling their insecurities, increasing loneliness
and even overstimulating the dopamine receptors in their brains. Simon Sinek's speech on Millennial's in the Workforce highlights some of these impacts quite powerfully.
Kerry McDonald writes in the Foundation for Economic Education that our traditional school systems, with their rigid structures and lack of freedom, exasperate the trend.
Citing researcher and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today Dr. Robert Epstein, Ms. McDonald points out that in our traditional schools, teen maturity is restricted by a lack of freedom in an environment that is overly structured and that fails to give students a voice or role in framing their daily lives. This micromanagement contributes to an extended "adolescence" period wherein the students feel they should be doing more for themselves, but are held back or incapable of doing so. The idea of an extended adolescence is a distinctly Western construct which simply doesn't exist in most cultures. When coupled with American society's general trend toward mollycoddling and over-parenting, teens regularly receive the message that they are not capable of managing their own lives and develop a sense of hopelessness.
Cultures that grant teens greater freedom and responsibility, be it to structure their own school day, choose their own courses and fields of study, or just to take chances and learn from their mistakes, do not have epidemic rates of teenage anxiety, depression, or even angst. Instead, children grow up developing a sense of personal responsibility and confidence that comes from directing their own destinies; they are not stuck in a limbo state, ready to mature, but being held back by a culture that seeks to keep them children beyond their years. They learn they are capable of directing their own lives and don't need their parent, teacher or school administrator to structure every hour of every day for them.
Certainly, with the rapid increase in anxiety and depression plaguing our youth, we need to look long and hard at the lifestyle choices and changes that have contributed to such a dramatic change in adolescent mental health in so short a time. While no quick fix is available, we owe it to our students to look closely at the negative effects of doing too much for them, restricting their freedom, and limiting their personal responsibility, not to mention putting addictive technology in their hands without limitation.
Let's help our kids grow up by offering them the opportunity to make some of the decisions that impact their daily lives, especially those that relate to their school day.