Updated: Apr 6
Adolescent stress and anxiety are reaching epidemic proportions in our society, as borne out by research.
Parents are doing their best to prepare their children for the future, and despite their caring and good intentions, they may be missing an important piece of the puzzle.
A simple strategy is recommended, supported by research, that can have a profound and positive impact on our children and on their peer community.
WHAT CHILDREN ARE FACING
As a consequence of the changing world in which we live, our adolescents find themselves in a very different social and technological ecosystem than the ones in which their parents and teachers were raised. Many of us, even intelligent parents and teachers, are not fully aware of the profound nature of these influences. This is because we were not raised with them and because they tend to happen in the child’s peer-world, unsupervised and below adult radar.
Many teachers have noticed a trend emerging in our culture. With each passing year, high school students on average seem less willing and/or able to handle academic rigor or to engage in problem solving without feeling elevated levels of anxiety, apathy, or self-doubt. This is a troubling reality and it does not bode well for the future.
Several technology journalists have noticed a trend in Silicon Valley where the technology entrepreneurs themselves, people like Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg and others, try to shield their own children from screen time and social media — from the very products they are creating. What do they know that we do not?
As parents and educators, it is our job to understand this new reality as best we can in order that we can best guide our children to healthy outcomes.
Before we address technology, let us first recognize the baseline of anxiety that is built into our educational system and society. Our children are raised to believe that they must get into a good 4-year college or else their lives may end up being difficult or even disastrous. There is increasing competition to get into the best schools, and children are raised to believe that they must excel throughout middle and high school in order to give themselves the best chance of getting into one. Children believe that poor grades will jeopardize their chances of getting into college, and therefore of succeeding in life. They also believe they must pad their resumes with all manner of extra-curricular activities in order to stand out above the competition. As has been reported in the news, in some communities, parents reinforce this college-at-all-costs ethos by paying for expensive test prep or by giving large sums of money in bribes to ensure that their children get into top schools.
While many parents claim that they do not apply this kind of pressure, and that they even tell their children as much, their children still experience the pressure and the anxiety for two reasons. Firstly, they believe that if they fail to get into a good college, their parents will find it unacceptable. Secondly, children must contend with a robust and demanding peer pressure reality. If they do not get into a prestigious college, they will feel embarrassed — even ashamed — in front of their peers. Without the bragging rights of a 'worthy' college acceptance, they may feel their lives do not measure up or that they are lacking something tangible, which is, or course, not the case at all.
Children therefore feel the need to accomplish academic success while maintaining the approval of both their parents and their peer group. If either approval falters, their anxiety will become elevated. By virtue of the ups and downs of real life, both may well falter on a regular basis . Unfortunately, the pressure they experience does not end with academics.
The problem with today’s adolescent peer pressure is that it is far more intense than anything their parents or teachers experienced when they were young. For many of us, peer pressure was limited to the playground and to the places where we socialized. Perhaps the telephone was involved. But only the people on the phone with us or on that same playground were witness to the interactions. Today, peer interactions take place in cyberspace. They follow us home, peering back out at us expectantly from the screen of our mobile device. This shared social space is open 24/7, and most children are not yet equipped to withstand either its allure or the perceived demands of their peer group. (Neither are many adults.) In addition, many of their social media posts are visible to the entire world, and may be so forever. That is a tremendous amount of social pressure to carry, especially when the consequences of falling out of favor with the online peer group can be so painful and public. And all of this does not even take into account the even more troubling and damaging reality of cyberbullying, to which some children are subjected.
We are not in the 80’s, 90’s, or even the 2000’s anymore. Our teens feel overwhelmed and they are finding no respite.
We do not mean to imply that all adolescent anxiety results from smartphone screen time and constant peer interactions.  But these are definitely contributing factors.
"It's so funny how social media was just this fun thing, and now it's this monster that consumes so many millennial lives."
We possess instant access to information and communication with others around the globe to a degree unprecedented in human history. Many children have virtually unfettered access to cyberspace, and they are therefore able to tap into both the information and the instant communication that it affords.
The sheer volume of incoming information is overwhelming, and censoring it is extremely challenging for many of us — nigh impossible when dealing with a generation that understands the technology better than their parents. Much of the content can also be disturbing, distressing, or confusing. As Charles Hoskinson, CEO of IOHK, puts it, “the internet came out, and all of a sudden we took what the Enlightenment had started and what the printing press had started and we put it on the fastest acceleration in human history. And over an arc of time, we got to a point where, no matter where you are born, you could have access to more rich and verified information than a king in a prior time. There has never been a time in human history where that is the case. The problem is that our mental tools, our cognitive tools, and the way we think, the way we act, are products of Darwinism; they are products of evolution; they are products of genes, which were adapted for survival in a certain type of structure that we’ve endured for millions of years. Human beings aren’t meant to see the whole board, and when they do, they have to put in control structures to protect themselves. It is almost like staring at the sun.”  If our teens are staring at the sun, it should not surprise us when they emerge, sunburnt and vision-compromised.
But the instant and constant communication is the far more troubling aspect. Many adolescents spend large amounts of time texting one another or interacting on social media. Teens have never before needed to manage this many public-facing personal profiles that are under constant scrutiny for coolness, relevance, or even for information that can be used against them. In no previous generation did our children ever feel such social pressure to send nude selfies (‘sexting’) to peers at school or even to strangers online. What is more, as Dr Tim Elmore explains in his book Marching Off The Map, while sexting happened mostly in high school for Generation Y (the Millennials), it is now commonplace in middle school for Generation Z (the Centennials). 
Dr Elmore also points out that, according to a 2016 Pew Report, 72% of middle-class 12-17 year-olds have a snapchat profile, 68% are on Facebook, and 66% are on Instagram. No less than 71% spend time on more than one site every day. Our children are therefore spending, in effect, more than a full-time job’s worth of time on digital media every week. As a consequence, they “can tend to be narcissistic, they can tend to care too much about what others think of them, they can tend to be impulsive with short attention spans, they can tend to experience anxiety and depression, they can tend to lead to addictive lifestyles.”  Another recent paper links increased rates of depression and suicide among adolescents to increased social media usage and screen time. 
Why is social media so intoxicating to children? Since peer approval — social acceptance — is one of their most primal needs, social media interactions become the avenue through which they seek this approval. One of the principal currencies of this space is the ‘like,’ and many a person’s feelings of self-worth are directly connected to the number of likes they get on a post… compared to the number received by others. The number of ‘likes’ is subconsciously viewed as a popularity score, and it therefore becomes intimately tied to the need for emotional validation. ‘Likes’ are essentially about comparing ourselves to others. As such, they (and other gamification score-keeping functionalities) are toxic and do not serve the adolescent peer space in a positive way. They are designed to engage consumers for advertisers.
Social media can even engender feelings of anxiety, stress, and shame in adults. As a friend, who is a corporate executive, once recounted to me, even when a private, professional social network is involved, anxiety in the workplace peer group can still occur on the level of “why did my boss not like my post, but he liked those posts?”
Teens, though, are less equipped to deal with the anxiety that some adults might face in the workplace. As parents and educators, it is surely part of our job to shield children from influences that are developmentally inappropriate, and how much more so from those influences that are proving debilitating for an entire emerging generation.
Smartphones, the teen’s primary mode of connecting to cyberspace, represent a perfect storm of potentially negative influences in one convenient and seductive package. Total or constant access to information and instantaneous connection and feedback is developmentally inappropriate and can be damaging to children. This makes the modern technological age extremely stress-inducing for young humans.
One study found that a group of teenagers diagnosed with an addiction to smartphone and internet use have significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, insomnia and impulsivity than do a matching group of their non-addicted peers. The study also found an imbalance of certain neurotransmitters that relate to drowsiness and anxiety in the brains of the addicted group. 
Another study found that adolescents with excessive smartphone use had reduced functional connectivity between regions of their brain that relate to cognitive control , one of which is the prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive functioning.
Remarkably, merely having a smartphone in one’s pocket is enough for distraction to take effect. Since social media posting occurs 24/7, we are primed to expect our phone to beep or buzz every so often with each arriving text message, email, or notification… even if we are not consciously aware that this is happening. A study was performed where a group of standardized test-takers were divided into 3 groups. The first group kept their phones in their pockets. The second group kept their phones in their backpacks under their desks. The third group kept their phones in their backpacks outside the room in the hallway. The results of the test were unequivocal. The first group scored lowest. The third group scored highest. 
The research seems to paint a rather clear if stark picture of the current reality facing our smartphone-enabled children. Their digital experiences have clearly not been adequately vetted by our (adult) generation before becoming their ‘new normal.’ This may simply be because adults have not viscerally understood this reality for lack of their own adolescent experience with it. We seem only now to be gaining a more accurate appreciation for just how damaging this reality is turning out to be, and how we as a society have failed to adequately guide or ration our children’s cyber-experiences up to this point.
Since many parents allow their children total, uninterrupted access to their smartphones, they may have no idea what their children are actually doing on their phones after midnight. This is true unless they have robust parental controls — that their children are not able to skirt — which give them full access to their child’s smartphone activity. Many children, though, will still be able to find ways around some parental controls without their parents knowing.
Either way, the reality remains that those children who are on their phones until midnight or later are manifesting increased levels of anxiety and a decreased ability to focus on learning. This anxiety is caused not only by the need to keep pace with their constant, unrelenting online peer reality, but notably also by the fact that so many adolescents are continually sleep-deprived by virtue of being up so late in social communication. Some might believe that obvious tiredness is a result of too much homework — and this is certainly a convenient excuse for many students too. While this may be true in a few cases, the research quoted above, as well as anecdotal evidence from informal conversations in the classroom, reveal that screen time is by far the bigger time-culprit.
In one of her weekly Character Lab ‘Tip of the Week’ emails , author Angela Duckworth refers to a recent focus group study with adolescents on the subject of sleep deprivation:
First, teens stay up late on their phones because of FOMO—fear of missing out. One 15-year-old boy said: “As soon as you give into that temptation you're on it for an hour, two hours at least and then—so yeah, I would say it always affects your sleep. And then you're always wondering, ‘What's everyone else doing? Are they speaking to each other? Am I missing out? Should I be on this? Should I be up?’ And then yeah—it affects my sleep.”
Second, teens perceived a social norm of being online and responsive to social media well past a reasonable bedtime. “If the conversation is going good you need to keep it going,” explained a 14-year-old girl. “You can't ignore them or else that's just rude.” 
Duckworth underscores that teens care far more about not missing out on any social participation than they do about how sleep deprivation will affect their grades or health.
Sleep-deprivation, especially if constantly present, is insidious on several levels. Not only does it deplete energy, it also diminishes motivation, interest, and the ability to concentrate. It thus also increases irritability, frustration, and anxiety.
A close friend, whom I consider to be a good parent, once described to me the moment he realized that it was beyond ridiculous that his 15 year-old son should have full-time, unrestricted access to the internet — to information and persons unknown — simply by virtue of having a smartphone in his hands until he fell asleep. My friend described that he immediately enacted a new rule at home: no smartphone use after 10:30pm, and no smartphones in bedrooms overnight. This was met, predictably, with a day or two of resistance, but he reported that after a few days, his son was virtually transformed. As a result of getting more sleep, he was less irritable and frustrated, and better able to focus and interact during the day.
One research paper suggests that “many of the cognitive impairments associated with mobile device use may simply represent the general deleterious effects of diverting conscious attention away from a focal task. What may be special about smartphones, however, is the frequency with which they seem to create these diversions; their omnipresence and personal relevance may combine to create a particularly potent draw on the orientation of attention.”  As we mentioned above, simply having a device on one’s person has a distracting effect because we are constantly, subconsciously, expecting and awaiting that next buzz of incoming feedback, that imminent ding of affirming contact, that notification of approval of our latest online post. Because our peer group is never offline, they are never out of our consciousness. As such, one of the key focal tasks from which adolescents are diverted by the very presence of their mobile devices is going to sleep.
The fact that excessive smartphone use leads to adolescent sleep deprivation seems to be a familiar theme in the research , as well as the fact that sleep deprivation can have related physical and mental health consequences, not to mention academic ones. In an article released by the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, it is reported that “With the widespread use of portable electronic devices and the normalization of screen media devices in the bedroom, insufficient sleep has become commonplace, affecting 30% of toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children and the majority of adolescents. Studies [have] found an association between screen media use and delayed bedtime and/or decreased total sleep time. This pervasive phenomenon of pediatric sleep loss has widespread implications due to the associations between insufficient sleep and increased risk of childhood obesity, disrupted psychological well-being, and impaired cognitive/academic functioning.” 
The willingness and ability to apply oneself to academic thinking is compromised by sleep deprivation. Being distracted by the presence of the all-important, ongoing peer-reality within the portal that is our mobile device can also be a factor.
As a teacher, I immediately recognized my friend’s description of his 15 year-old son because I sensed similar patterns going on in many of my 16 to 18 year-old high school students. It was virtually written on their faces, and it was revealed in the frequency with which they tried to open their smartphones in class in spite of our respective classroom policies.
I and many of my teaching colleagues have also noticed a distinct shift, from Generation Y to Generation Z, in terms of the level of interest expressed by students in their learning. More than that, there seems to be an increasing unwillingness to apply their minds to challenges or to solving problems. It is as if they lack the fortitude or will to muster enough energy or enthusiasm for the mental work of learning. Might it be because they are mentally and emotionally exhausted? Might it be that their minds are over-stimulated from the unprecedented levels of interaction and information they must navigate? Might it be that academics are not as engaging as their video games? Or might it simply be a combination of many factors, each more distracting than the next?
The first time I informally polled my students in class as to how many of them were on their smartphones until they went to sleep, all but one of them raised their hands. That is the norm — an entirely dysfunctional and unsustainable norm. I even asked them whether they thought it was good for them or not, and most conceded that it probably was not. We decided, as a class, to compare the amount of screen time we were consuming on our mobile devices. When I opened the screen time monitoring app on my iPhone, one of my 12th grade students asked me what my screen time was the day before. I said “two hours and forty eight minutes.” His response: “Wow. Mine was ten hours.”
There has been a movement developing to make school start times later in the morning for children in the hope that they will get more sleep. This strategy will have little to no effect if children are allowed continued, unfettered access to their smartphones to all hours of the night. If they can sleep later, they will simply stay up later.
THE EXTENSION OF CHILDISHNESS
When these young people reach college, they bring their emotional issues along with them — issues that are not left behind simply because they move state or undergo a status change from high school senior to college freshman. An American College Health Association report from 2007 revealed that “94 percent of students reported feeling ‘overwhelmed’ by their lifestyles, 44 percent said they were so overwhelmed it was difficult to function, almost 10 percent had considered suicide in the last year.”  And this trend seems to be gaining momentum. A 2013 study revealed that “teen anxiety continues to rise. Symptoms like panic attacks, angst in social situations and obsessive-compulsive behavior are all indicators of the largest class of mental illnesses. These Anxiety Disorders are the most common of all mental illness among adolescents. They have been diagnosed in a full 25 percent of teens, and 30 percent of teenaged females.”  We must do something differently in order to reverse this trend. Our children cannot easily succeed and reach their potential if they are hamstrung by anxiety disorders, social pigeon-holes, and held hostage by the all-important stamp-of-approval conferred by that specific 4-year college acceptance.
Elmore describes the modern adolescent as representing “the extinction of childlikeness” but “the extension of childishness.”  This is a very incisive insight. They are aware of far too much to be childlike. To both their peer group and their parents they also feel they have to project themselves as being able to handle the completely unhandlable world to which they are constantly exposed. Elmore laments that, as a result, “a student can graduate from all levels of school, even with good grades, but be emotionally or socially behind. Biologically, the graduate is an adult. Emotionally, the graduate may be unprepared for the adult world. During the years of 2010 to 2015, somewhere between 60-80 percent of our kids moved back home after college.” 
Parents of adolescents can help to reverse this trend by guarding against repeating some of the mistakes of the past. Dr Elmore explains that, despite having the best intentions in the world, six of these classic parenting mistakes are that we:
“unwittingly teach them to dodge responsibility to avoid pain.
put their happiness today above their discipline.
condition them to escape risks simply to guarantee safety.
enable them to feel entitled to perks by helping them take shortcuts.
foster narcissism in them by putting their own desires above the law.
prioritize today at the expense of tomorrow.” 
Parents can also help by working to bring their children to a state of less anxiety. We diminish their anxiety by freeing them from some of the burden of the information and peer-pressure onslaught they face, if not all of the time, then at least some of the time.
Dr Elmore’s conclusions? “A culture that offers the young increasing information and autonomy without requiring equal parts accountability and responsibility produces ‘unready' adults. In fact, we should expect arrogant, entitled brats to emerge as they enter adulthood.” 
Our children and students are wonderful and filled with all kinds of potential. Their parents are loving, caring, and want only the best for them. As such, there is no reason that they need to emerge as the “arrogant, entitled brats” Dr Elmore describes above.
Informed parents are in a position to be courageous enough to set appropriate boundaries for their children vis-a-vis the use of their profoundly powerful and impactful smartphones. If left to their own devices, children will use their devices constantly and be plagued by elevated levels of stress and anxiety as a result.
For reference, it is useful to bear in mind that some former high-level tech executives have spoken out publicly in order to "condemn the companies' intense focus on building addictive tech products."  Even Apple CEO Tim Cook "doesn't allow his nephew to join online social networks.” In addition, many silicon valley executives and parents are not only restricting smartphone screen time, but also moving their children into schools that are unplugged from technology. 
The New York-based Child Mind Institute reports that "using social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat may have more negative effects for children and teenagers than positive ones.” What is perhaps even more telling is that "the most sought-after private school in Silicon Valley, the Waldorf School of Peninsula had banned electronic devices for under 11-year-olds in 2011. It rather teaches the children of eBay, Apple, Uber and Google staff to make go-karts, knit and cook. After certain reports of smartphones affecting mental hygiene, the school changed pedagogies for students’ learning.” 
Adolescent anxiety is, no doubt, a complex problem with many contributing factors and many approaches to mitigation. We are not recommending that smartphone use be stopped. That is not necessary. It is only necessary to dial usage back to a more appropriate level. What that level is precisely can certainly be debated, and it will invariably be a matter of personal preference for each family. The following recommendation is intended in that spirit.
As a community, we can help to make this problem better and our children healthier by encouraging families to adopt a simple policy at home:
No smartphone use after 10:30pm
No smartphones in bedrooms overnight
Research indicates that a healthier practice is for screen time to stop 30-60 minutes before bed, and for it not to resume until 30 minutes after waking up. 
Initiating such a policy, especially if it has not been in place before, will undoubtedly provoke conflict. As a result, some parents may shy away from taking the necessary stand with their adolescent because things may become unpleasant for a while. A teenager will predictably react and flail in tantrum if the connection to their ‘social heroin’ is removed. But standing strong in order to guide and teach our children is the job of both parent and teacher alike. Enduring the unpleasantness of their reaction might be one of the best investments we can make in their future mental health.
Angela Duckworth suggests: "Try giving your teenage daughter or son a reputation-preserving alibi for going dark after dark. My suggestion: “My parents are so strict. It’s totally lame, but they literally take my phone away after 10 p.m.!” 
If our entire community accepts and engages with this recommendation together, we can reinforce each others’ efforts and empower our children together. (“There is no point in going on right now because I know that none of your friends are allowed to be on right now either.”) Changes such as these can only be effective to the extent that we work on them together, as one community family, in service of our children’s empowerment.
If only half of our community takes on this ‘smartphone curfew,’ then half of our children will begin to experience the benefits of increased energy and focus, and hopefully, also diminished fatigue and anxiety.
It should be noted that this recommendation applies equally well to any device that children can use to connect or to communicate online — any internet-enabled tablet or laptop.
And for those whose children have not yet reached ‘smartphone age,’ it is prudent to have a strategy like this in place ahead of time in order that our children’s digital and online experiences can be appropriately guided and curated from the very start. It is also appropriate to debate until what age we should seek to delay those experiences.
We must also be willing to debate whether or not there are any virtues at all in allowing our children to manage social media profiles, and if it is unavoidable, until what age we should seek to delay this exposure.
It is possible to build a future for our children and students that finds them neither challenged nor debilitated but rather empowered. But it will not happen on its own.
(This post is an excerpt from The Animal In The Mirror.)
FOOTNOTES / SOURCES:
1. For more on this topic, see the compelling KCET documentary on adolescent pressure and suicide: https://www.kcet.org/shows/socal-connected/episodes/under-pressure
2. For more on anxiety disorders, see: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
4. Elmore, T., McPeak, A., Marching Off The Map: Inspire Students To Navigate A Brand New World, Poet Gardener (2017) page 7.
5. Elmore ibid., page 180-184.
6. Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. N. (2018). “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3–17.
7. Radiological Society of North America, "Smartphone addiction creates imbalance in brain, study suggests." ScienceDaily, 30 November 2017.
8. Chun, Ji-Won et al. “Role of Frontostriatal Connectivity in Adolescents With Excessive Smartphone Use.” Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 9 437. 12 Sep. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00437.
10. January 26, 2020.
11. Scott, H., et al., "Identifying drivers for bedtime social media use despite sleep costs: The adolescent perspective,” Elsevier, Volume 5, Issue 6, December 2019, Pages 539-545, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleh.2019.07.006
12. Adrian F. Ward, et. al., "Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (2017) 2:2, 140-154.
13. See also Adams, S. K., Daly, J. F., & Williford, D. N. (2013). Article Commentary: Adolescent Sleep and Cellular Phone Use: Recent Trends and Implications for Research. Health Services Insights. https://doi.org/10.4137/HSI.S11083
14. Hale, Lauren et al. “Youth Screen Media Habits and Sleep: Sleep-Friendly Screen Behavior Recommendations for Clinicians, Educators, and Parents.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America vol. 27,2 (2018): 229-245.
15. Elmore ibid., page 176.
17. Elmore ibid, page 10.
18. Elmore ibid, page 11.
19. Elmore ibid., page 76.
20. Elmore ibid., page 107.
21. Tristan Harris, TED Talk "How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C74amJRp730
22. Chris Weller "Silicon Valley parents are raising their kids tech-free — and it should be a red flag,” Business Insider, February 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/silicon-valley-parents-raising-their-kids-tech-free-red-flag-2018-2
23. Komal Nathani, “ The Techpreneurs of Silicon Valley are Keeping their Families Away from Technology. Should You Too?”, 2018 https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/319288
25. Duckworth, ibid.