Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Stressed about the future, teens should help shape it

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LENOX — Pressure to get good grades, look good, fit in socially, get involved in extracurricular activities, excel at sports.

Although classroom success is the prime focus for three out of five teens, according to a just-released Pew Research Center national survey of 13- to 17-year-olds, all those other concerns weigh heavily on the rising rate of depression, stress and anxiety.

Half of the teens surveyed see bullying, drug addiction and alcohol abuse as major problems among fellow students in their local communities, while two out of five cite poverty, and about a third cite gangs and teen pregnancy.

The pressure felt by a majority of teens feel to do well in school results from the belief that their key to personal fulfillment and a secure economic future depends on higher education. About 60 percent plan to attend a four-year college.

More than nine in 10 told the Pew researchers via an online and phone survey that having a job or career they enjoy would be extremely or very important to them as an adult. Three out of five males cite wealth as a top priority, compared to two out of five females. About half of all young people cite marriage as a personal goal, while only 40 percent see having children as very important.

It's a sobering report from a well-respected research firm, but perhaps not too surprising, given the political and economic forces buffeting young people:

- Mass shootings followed by minimal gun-safety measures;

- Obvious settled-science climate change resisted by Washington despite the best efforts of states like Massachusetts, New York and California to contain greenhouse gas emissions;

- Evidence that without a college degree, high-school grads face bleak, dead-end job prospects in the service sector;

- A toxic political scene, with battle lines drawn between fired-up right-wing and left-wing partisans while moderates of both parties are squeezed out of the middle.

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Focusing on academic pressure, the Pew researchers found teens today are spending more time doing homework and less time socializing, compared to past generations. Homework consumes an hour a day, on average for high schoolers, compared to 44 minutes a day a decade ago and 30 minutes in the mid-1990.

In addition, the surveyors found that more than 60 percent of the youths felt some anxiety about looking good, fitting in socially and taking part in extracurricular activities, including sports. A majority of teenage girls, reporting added pressure about appearance, stated they experience tension or nervousness nearly every day.

At a recent Lenox School Committee budget meeting, high school guidance counselor and department Chairwoman Tara Romeo said the middle and high school is making increasing use of a behavioral consultant to help students discuss causes of distress, "and he would help them learn some tools or do some scenarios with some different ideas on how to cope."

Principal Michael Knybel cited formation of a therapeutic group by seniors and a few juniors called SHOC, Student Health on Campus, to discuss "anxiety, stress, time limits and taking on too much." And school nurse Jennifer Drees spoke of seeing "a flurry of middle school students coming into the office, looking to just take a break, have a safe space, just to breathe for a couple of minutes when they're feeling overwhelmed or for whatever reason."

Some of the faculty at Morris Elementary School would like to see more focus on "teaching kids at a younger age how to better manage stress, what anxiety looks like, what it feels like in their body and how they can learn to manage that when they recognize it," she added. "We're definitely starting to see trends of stressed-out high schoolers, now stressed middle schoolers and we're starting to see that in the younger grades as well. Helping kids to recognize that and build tools at an earlier age just benefits them moving forward, because we know academic stress and life in general is just going to get more complicated."

The widely publicized Pew Research Center survey inspired much comment among specialists. For example, Philip Kendall, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University in Philadelphia, cited another major stressor: Constant surveillance by peers on social media, and the "fear of missing out" it can generate. Guidance about how to understand social media — for example, a person taking 50 photos to get one perfect image — can help to dispel anxiety, he told The New York Times.

There is one silver lining in this playbook of pessimism.

An American Psychological Association study released four months ago found that despite their stress about the present and future concerns for the country, more than seven in 10 teens (also known as Generation Z or post-millennials) reported feeling hopeful about their own future. And three in five said they had taken some form of action last year, such as signing a petition or speaking with a friend or family member to persuade them about their political or social views.

Student activism seems like a good antidote to anxiety, giving teens a sense of gaining at least some control over their destiny. Stress seems closely related to a feeling of helplessness, a loss of agency over one's own life. If high school students are spending an hour a day on homework, that leaves plenty of time to try to help change our world for the better.

Come to think of it, getting involved in the 2020 national election campaign may be part of a prescription to help combat anxiety that can lead to depression.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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