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Close to Home: Social media drives teen mental health crisis

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

Headlines highlighting the declining mental health of adolescents abound.

There is no dearth of data describing the problem, and there is a general sense that schools should “do something.” But basic questions about what they should do, how they should do it and what is causing this alarming decline in mental health remain largely unanswered.

Louis Ganzler
Louis Ganzler
Amie Carter
Amie Carter

As experienced secondary school leaders, we believe this crisis has been fueled by the rise of social media. We further believe schools have a vital role in promoting adolescent mental health, particularly by focusing on what schools do best: providing social connection and engagement within an array of meaningful and complex activities.

First, the bad news: Metrics paint a distressing picture of teens’ mental health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measured an increase of 40% since 2009 in adolescents’ levels of sadness, helplessness, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. These numbers prompted a rare advisory from the surgeon general (advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges).

As social media became more prevalent, it increasingly replaced in-person interactions. The danger is that social media deprives teens of the calming and supporting role of friends who act as insulation against stress and anxiety.

Pro-social interactions are the glue that hold communities together and have been linked to increased happiness, longevity and social stability. Even increased social interaction with people with whom we have weak or peripheral ties has been shown to increase well-being.

Social media users award attention and praise for extrinsic attributes: a trick, a prank, a fashion style, etc. But intrinsic motivation is linked to more long-term happiness: mastery of an instrument, developing a skill, learning a language.

It’s comparable to the goal of building physical strength. While a caffeine-packed energy drink can make you feel charged for a few hours, it’s not the same as actually building muscle strength. Like muscle, we carry mastery of intrinsic skills with us. And the rewards this brings are not as fleeting as the attention gained from social media posts.

While health and education leaders have been sounding the alarm bells, they have proposed few solutions.

But there is some good news. A movement started in the late 1990s to reorient psychology from understanding what goes wrong in people who are abnormal to understanding what goes right in people who are happy. Happy people show high levels of satisfaction, enjoyment and purpose.

We believe schools can play an outsized role in improving happiness by explicitly helping students connect with each other and develop their interests and passions by offering an array of meaningful and complex activities. This emphasis on connection and activities is necessary to counteract the harmful effects of excessive social media use.

Combining what we know about what is causing adolescent depression with what we know can impact happiness, we see three things schools can focus on during six critical years, from seventh through 12th grades, to help alleviate this crisis.

First, instead of just telling students they need to be on social media less, we need a curriculum explaining the cost social media extracts from children. Second, students need to understand why pro-social interactions with peers are so impactful on a person’s well-being. Third, teens need to be explicitly shown and acquainted with the multitude of activities, electives and clubs available to them and how they provide opportunities for mastery, meaning and connection.

The time for asking whether schools should do anything about adolescents’ mental health is past; schools must be involved and, we argue, they are particularly well-positioned to make a positive difference.

Adolescents need help navigating the increasing complexity of modern life. They need a pathway to a life filled with satisfaction, enjoyment and meaning. Schools in partnership with families and the community are positioned to positively influence this journey.

In doing so, schools can deliver on their potential to influence and improve the lives of the students they serve.

Louis Ganzler is principal of Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park. Amie Carter is assistant superintendent of student services in Marin County.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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