Our Teens Are Not All Right

By Barbara Pierce

Being a teenager today is astoundingly different than even a generation ago.

In addition to all the challenges of growing up looms a huge heap of newer ones.

When they were asked, just one-third of kids aged 12 to 17 said things were going well for them today, according to a recent survey by Common Sense Media, one of the largest nonprofits dedicated to advocacy for children.

Teens today are anxious about their lives and pessimistic about the future. A similar survey was done by Gallup and the Walton Foundation.

Together, the surveys offer a detailed look at the perspectives of teenagers.

“The data is pretty stark: Our kids are not all right,” said James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media online.

Some of the challenges identified by teens today include:

Mental health is the top concern

Teens identified mental health as their top challenge.

They have more awareness of mental health issues today and face less stigma in talking about it. Their concern is reflected in increasing hospitalization and suicide rates.

There’s an increasing mental health crisis among youth, rising dramatically here, Shawn Cusworth said. Cusworth is director of Behavioral Health, The Neighborhood Center, Utica, which offers mental health services for children.

A 2022 survey of students aged 13 through 18 in Herkimer and Oneida counties found that 78% had anxiety that interfered with their daily activities, she reported.

The mental health of our children is in crisis.

What can parents do?

If you have concerns about your child, talk to his doctor or school counselor, suggested Cusworth. Or contact The Neighborhood Center, call or text 988 to get connected. The most important thing parents can do is listen to their teenagers, say some experts. “It helps and it will work,” said one teen in the survey.

Social media drives poor mental health

Teens identified social media as the biggest driver of poor mental health. The more a teen uses social media, the higher his risk for anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation.

Social media is defined by websites, apps and social games that connect people to each other through sharing pictures, thoughts, ideas, articles and other content. Most popular apps for teens are Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an advisory: While social media may offer some benefits, there are ample indicators that it can pose a risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of adolescents. Social media use by young people is nearly universal, with up to 95% of those aged 13-17 using it.

Teens use their smartphones to access social media, also for texting. Teens text more than any other form of communication. Said one middle school principal, quoted in the book “Alone Together” by Sherry Tunkle: “They sit in the in the dining hall and look at their phones. When they share things, they share what’s on their phone. They aren’t emotionally developed; they don’t have empathy for each other.”

Parents need to be on top of their kids, on top of their social media, say experts. And keep an open line of communication without judgment; encourage them to come to you with anything.

Redefining sex

Teens are having less sexual intercourse according to a CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey done in 2021. It’s possible that the pandemic played a role in this decline. A more recent survey being conducted now will show if the decline was temporary. Teens suspect the new data will show a spike.

Less sexual intercourse doesn’t mean they’re having less sex. The actions behind young love and lust are evolving.

And, the definition of sex? “Any sexual act,” said a 14-year-old peer ambassador trained by Planned Parenthood. “And sexual intercourse is one type of act.”

During adolescence, teens are exploring and beginning to understand their sexuality. A growing number of teens are identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Teresa Casullo, CAPP (Comprehensive Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention) director, Planned Parenthood, Schenectady, said:  “Today’s youth are informed, intelligent and like to shatter boxes society places on them. I believe they’ve benefited from the progress of the LGBTQIA movements”

Gender fluidity is becoming more common along with a decrease is stigma about identifying as not heterosexual. However, “LGBTQ people still continue to face discrimination and victimization across the country,” added Casullo.

Contrary to what many think, young people are more likely to delay the onset of sexual activity if they have access to sex education. Some schools and organizations supplement sex education with peer counseling, where teens are trained to speak to each other about relationships and other topics that they might feel uncomfortable raising with adults.

What parents can do is listen, take an interest in what your teen is sharing, then validate their feelings and show empathy.