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Robin Smith / Mar. 11, 2019

Many Teens Stressed, Depressed, Obsessed With Self

The deleterious effect social-media technology has on mental health is becoming clear.

Inarguably, there is a rise in the incidence of depression, anxiety, serious mental illness diagnoses and, yes, suicide among teenagers and young adults.

Why?

There’s no one cause and there are numerous risk factors. Among those cited by the Mayo Clinic for both depression and anxiety, there are a few that deserve a bit of discussion. Just a note of warning that while answers are available, the solutions pursued are most often the easiest that may or may not have a lasting impact or being welcomed within a culturally or politically acceptable mindset.

Let’s start with brain chemistry. The brain, every human’s central organ, functions via neurotransmitters, or chemicals that leave one nerve ending and fill receptors at other nerve endings or muscles. A few of these chemical messengers are dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, histamine, epinephrine, and a list of many others. For individuals with depression, anxiety, or other serious mental-health diagnoses, medicine used to treat their conditions are acting at these receptor cites to mimic these neurochemicals, to block an excess or to reduce or modulate the chemistry of the brain.

Why is this particularly important in today’s culture? While it’s acceptable to understand that treatments involve these neurotransmitters, many don’t want to talk about a key cause of the imbalance. Taking any substance that is psychoactive makes changes inside the environment of our brains. Substances that impact one’s serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine may experience depression or have depressive symptoms. Substances that impact norepinephrine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) may unmask symptoms of anxiety.

Put very simply, there’s an optimal level of these neurotransmitters that, when changed with drug use, reflect symptoms of mental illness. No, the folks touting legalizing this-and-that don’t like to discuss these facts, but they’re just that — facts. This reality is very important as data is published warning against marijuana, alcohol and other substance abuse in teenagers while their brains continue to develop and while they are literally creating the architecture of their thinking, reasoning, and responses, both emotional and motor, in adolescence and early adulthood.

There are environmental factors that impact mental health. Among those factors are parenting, specifically the presence of the father in the home. Not having a dad in the home doesn’t necessarily predispose anyone to mental illness. But data is significant in volume and validity that children and students perform better in school when both parents are present in the home and have the long-term benefit of a more stable response to stress and traumatic experiences that, sadly, are relatively routine in life.

Other environmental factors include exposure to either repeated stress or abuse, specifically physical, sexual or emotion abuse, as well as trauma, but conditioning is absolutely part of how our bodies respond and react.

With reinforcement and repeated exposures, a behavior becomes “normal.” There was a day when face-to-face conversation was normal with social interaction involving eye contact and personal interaction. Today, in the “selfie” generation, it’s more common and, yes, normal, to respond by emojis, texts, and photos posted in social media than to have the face-to-face stimulation and interaction of another human or group. We’ve become beings that are driven by content not reasoning and discussion.

In this new normal of social media, absent physical presence and contact, several problems are inherent. First, whether in anger, frustration or emphasis of point, statements and communications via a device are not filtered by human empathy or care. There was a time that most would never dare say many of the things typed out in response via software platforms that safely distance individuals from personal accountability or thoughtfulness.

Second, bullying, intimidation, and the declaration of false information as truth is not only easier, but a growing problem. When looking at the instances of bullying that have led to teens committing suicide or engaging in self-destructive behavior, too often, the posse of the platforms of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat are found as key ingredients, used to target and marginalize a person. Again, these platforms permit a degree of distance that direct communication does not afford.

Finally, the entertainment value that preoccupies time is now replacing reading, writing, and engaging. The days of the sitting on the porch were replaced by going to the mall. Today, it’s a thread of type and icons with a faceless avatar that substitutes for dialogue and pushed content of music, videos, and photos that exert pressures to live in a very edited, produced, and timed new reality.

The excessive use of technology, as we have noted on other occasions, has become a risk factor for health feeding the sedentary lifestyle that predisposes kids to at least 12 deadly cancers associated with obesity. The physical impact is logical. The social harm that tech is exerting on our kids, and adults, must be acknowledged and addressed.

As careers and professions demand more and more employment of high-tech touches, a deliberate effort must be made by all to establish that nothing replaces the impact of family, friends, and the community right around us. We’re seeing the deleterious long-term outcomes of kids with the inability to cope, to communicate and to deal with conflict due to the one-way communication of technology.

It’s time to embrace more than just the “selfie” approach to life and live it.

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