Tomorrow is the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, so we’re going to take some time to talk about mental health.
Did you know that mental health issues are the most disabling types of disorders for youth and that right now, 3.2 million Canadian teens are at risk for depression? Are you aware that Canada’s teen suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world? These are troubling stats.
What is causing all of these mental health issues? According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, it’s a mix of biological and environmental factors. A teen’s environment is made up of school, home, their social life and their online interactions. A teen with a loving family, great friends and a supportive school can still feel environmental pressures.
Teens spend up to nine hours a day interacting with media—on their phones, on computers, on TV screens. For much of this time, they are playing games and making social connections, but they are also constantly exposed to ads and news items. It’s a largely unregulated environment that has a huge impact on their mental health.
According to a study released last year, overconsumption of news can be bad for your mental health. More than half of the study’s participants reported feeling stress and anxiety over the news, but 20% of them still constantly monitored the news on social media. Why are we tracking something that gives us stress and anxiety? According to Loretta Breuning, the author of Habits of a Happy Brain, we are attracted to negative news because we are wired to try to detect threats. So closely following the news is a survival instinct. It may be an impulse we have to work at controlling.
The study covered the impact on adult Americans. The impact on teens is likely greater. And it’s not being talked about enough. We’ve been debating the impact of social media on teens for a few years now. But most of those studies focus on self-esteem and body image. The problem is bigger than that. Teens are suffering from anxiety and depression in record numbers, and 24-hour access to depressing and anxiety-inducing information delivered via high-definition video is contributing to the problem.
What’s the solution? Media awareness. Young people should have a unit on media awareness every single school year. As we know, adults are falling prey to fake news all around us. How do we expect young people to navigate this mess?
We’ve got to give them the tools to understand how media works and how they can find responsible journalism. We’ve got to give them the tools to communicate how they feel about current events. And we’ve got to help them learn to recognize when media is doing them more harm than good.
In Faster Than Truth by K.L. Denman, a character named Smoke lives in a home where the news is always on and is always the topic of conversation. Smoke suffers from serious anxiety. Whether he might have suffered from anxiety anyway is unclear, but he fixates on the state of the world in an unhealthy way. He copes with a curious ritual, a harmless act that gives him a sense of control. But one day, it becomes too much. His ritual isn’t enough, and he ends up breaking the law trying to find a way to cope. It’s a fictional story, of course, but young people come up with all sorts of creative coping mechanisms—some are creative and wonderful; others are illegal or harmful to themselves or others.
Teens should engage with the world around them and with media. Their response to serious issues is often seriously impressive. The teen response to the Parkland shootings was inspiring, and now they are a major voice in the conversation about gun control in the US. The School Strike for Climate Change is an amazing international initiative lead by young people. We should encourage and facilitate that engagement any way we can. And we should give them the tools to recognize when media engagement is causing them harm.