FARGO — Any fan of John Hughes' movies could say how an average 1980s teen might have spent their free time — grabbing a burger, hanging out with friends at the mall or even going to a party, whether supervised by parents or not. Those '80s teens have now grown up and have kids of their own. It turns out, today's teens aren't nearly as likely as their "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" parents to spend time just hanging out with buddies, and according to research, it could be part of the reason their generation — Gen Z — is both lonelier and more anxious than their Gen X parents or their Boomer grandparents.

Research shows teens are increasingly spending time alone in their rooms watching Netflix and on social media rather than spending time interacting with friends. iStock/Special to The Forum
Research shows teens are increasingly spending time alone in their rooms watching Netflix and on social media rather than spending time interacting with friends. iStock/Special to The Forum

Social media = unsocial kids

The University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future" project shows since the dawn of the smartphone era, the amount of time teen girls are spending with friends has dramatically decreased. Eating popcorn at the movies with your BFF has given way to grabbing a snack and eating alone in your room watching Netflix and surfing social media.

"It's definitely not the way it was when we were growing up," says Jo Ellison, a clinical psychologist at Essentia Health in Fargo.

She says social media can be a good thing for an anxious teen because it allows them to reach out to one or more friends within seconds, but she says there are also definite drawbacks, including using social media to detach from other people.

"I think it's used a lot as a regulation tool, and it's not helpful. They might think 'I'm gonna feel better if I play around on my phone for awhile', but usually that's not true at all," Ellison said.

Instead, the anxious teen might log into Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook to see his or her friends in their best light — smiling, happy and surrounded by the in-crowd. While many adults might understand the skewed reality of social media — not many people post when they're feeling pimply and unpopular — kids might not understand the nuances of "spin."

"They’re comparing themselves to others, whether they say they are or not," says Tracy Hansen, a therapist at Fraser Ltd's Valley Hope Counseling. "Their self-esteem is affected by it. Electronics allow kids avoidance so they don’t have to face things they’re not comfortable with."

An InForum survey, conducted in Nov. 2019 about Generation Z and anxiety, showed many respondents who identified as "heavy social media users" experiencing high levels of anxiety and insomnia.

"I would not leave my room or dread going home. I would also have issues sleeping at night and feel extremely unsafe in my own home," said a young 20-something Gen Z woman. Another young woman responded, "I distanced myself from everyone, slept 12-plus hours a night, didn’t go to class. I wasn’t doing good in school because I couldn’t focus."

Others reported increased irritability and inability to focus.

"I’ve had insomnia my whole life, as well as compulsive eating," said 16-year-old Mollie Gilman of Fargo. "I would snap at my friends and family with what I thought was no reason at all."

The American Association of Pediatrics warns too much social media use leads to depression and anxiety. Gen Z individuals are growing up with an average of five screens or more in their lives. They spend more time on apps and communicate nearly exclusively with friends through social media. A Wall Street Journal report on girls' social media use, in particular says, "social media works against basic developmental goals — physical, cognitive, relations, sexual and maturational. Girls sleep with their phones and react to every notification. As they create more interesting, supposedly happier virtual personas for themselves, their real selves diminish. Girls collect "likes" instead of making friends. They can be devastated by a cruel text or a tepid reaction to a selfie. Long before they hold hands with a date, they are exposed to online pornography and misogynistic messages."

Parkland, Florida, USA - April 25, 2018: The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The school was the site of a school shooting in 2018 which set off mass protests against gun violence.
Parkland, Florida, USA - April 25, 2018: The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The school was the site of a school shooting in 2018 which set off mass protests against gun violence.

Tragedies come home

But decreased self-esteem isn't the only thing these anxious Gen Z'ers are experiencing. The internet is bringing the tragedies of the world into the palms of children's hands.

According to the American Psychological Association, Gen Z members are more stressed than adults about what they see on the news — everything from mass shootings to separation and deportation of immigrant and migrant families. Specifically, 75% of Gen Z who responded to an online Harris Poll of close to 4,000 people, said that mass shootings are a significant source of stress.

One young male respondent to the InForum survey said news he reads before bed on social media can keep him awake.

"I'll wake up frequently throughout the night with things still weighing on my mind. The biggest thing is, I just get irrationally and overly nervous about stuff and can't stop thinking about it. It affects my mood and happiness," he says.

"I do think we live in a scarier, more threatening world," Hansen said. "Fear of school shootings, lock-down drills, more gun violence. I know a 3 or 4-year-old doing a lockdown drill who was deathly afraid that his light up shoes would attract attention. Those are not fears a 3 or 4-year-old would have years ago. Very real fears."

"I have teenagers come in after shootings, and they’re concerned and worried," said Debbie Svobodny, Integrated Health Counselor at Sanford Health in Fargo. "I've had an adolescent say 'It will happen in my lifetime.'"

Therapists urge parents not to become "snowplow parents" clearing all obstacles out of the way for their children. They say it's better to have a child face their fear or fail at a young age when the stakes are lower. iStock/Special to The Forum
Therapists urge parents not to become "snowplow parents" clearing all obstacles out of the way for their children. They say it's better to have a child face their fear or fail at a young age when the stakes are lower. iStock/Special to The Forum

Snowplow parents

It's a natural instinct to protect our children, but are today's parents taking it too far, raising a generation of kids who just need to toughen up? It's not quite that simple, but the parental tendency to protect children from any adversity seems to be backfiring at times.

"Parents need to let kids fail when the stakes are lower so that they know how to handle it when the stakes get higher," said Hansen. "Don't remove all obstacles from their path. Parents need to guide more and protect less. In most cases, the worst thing you can do with anxiety is avoid it all together."

Previous generations had to face some of the same stressors kids today do, but because parents either didn't perceive it as an anxiety disorder or perhaps because of the stigma of seeking help for mental health, kids years ago just got through it. Today's kids today are more comfortable seeing a therapist if they perceive a problem.

"I’m glad we’ve gotten to a point where we’re not ashamed to be in therapy. I think awareness and acceptance is starting to have a cultural shift and change in our society, which is a good thing," Hansen says. "But the threshold for ability to cope seems lower."

She says Gen Z might not be accurately labeling the level of anxiety they face.

"Yes, they feel anxious, but they label all anxiety as a 10 out of 10. A certain amount of stress is a good thing and motivates us," said Hansen. "For example, the meaning of bullying has changed or may be overused. A mean comment or teasing is defined as bullying, rather than referring to it as "razzing" or just a mean remark. Bullying is pervasive."

Hansen says the goal of young people, parents and therapists should be to find the "sweet spot of anxiety," where you're motivated by it, but it doesn't stop you from living the way you want to. She says many times the children she counsels think the things they're going through are unusual, when they're not.

"It is so normal in middle school to be fighting with your friends. It’s normal to have fears about what the future holds and your tests and classes and things," said Hansen. "There is a lot of this that is normal. Again, it’s that ability to cope. You want to be able to increase their confidence in their ability to cope with the anxiety, or know that no matter what happens, there will be something that can be figured out."

Tomorrow on Generation Anxiety: How one local woman may have gotten anxiety from strep throat.

Infogram of survey results: