Evidence increasingly suggests that we and our youth are exhibiting increased levels of anxiety and depression. Consider for one that the suicide rate for teens and young adults (20-24) of today is significantly higher than it was during the Great Depression. Despite feelings to the contrary, the youth of today are arguably safer than they have ever been. Since 1907, the mortality rate of young children has dropped almost fifty fold. In the last forty years, the rates of violent crime against children have decreased by over 60%. Statistics from the last fifteen years indicate that of all the children that go missing every year, almost 99% are found within hours or days. Of all kidnappings, roughly four out of five are perpetrated by family members, not strangers. Less than .05% (approximately 100-115 a year) is characterized as “stereotypical abductions” such as the cases of Elizabeth Smart. Since 1987, the rates of serious injury and death for children who were bicycling or walking have declined by over 50%.
So why are our youth so anxious, especially considering all of the resources and opportunities they have available? One reason is that individuals of today are typically more open about their psychological woes than in decades before. Even so, findings strongly suggest that increased worry is a real phenomenon. It appears that five factors are contributing to this. These factors have shifted in interrelated ways over the past generations that have left us in increasingly perilous straits.
The first factor is sleep. We are sleeping 20% less than a century ago. Teens especially are some of the most sleep-deprived individuals on the planet. The 24/7 culture and high rates of mobile/internet use, in addition to a natural biological shift in sleep patterns starting at the teen years (that often doesn’t coincide well with wake times) appear to be primary culprits. Given that sleep and anxiety problems (in addition to many other psychological and physical issues) are closely tied together, it seems likely that the great sleep recession equals more worry.
The second factor is health & fitness. Clear connections exist between increased anxiety and obesity, reduced activity level, and processed foods. Meanwhile, rates of overweight children have more than tripled in the past four decades. Children born in the last ten years have a 35% chance of developing diabetes. Type II diabetes was once called adult-onset diabetes because it was so rare in children. Now it accounts for 90-95% of all diabetes cases.
Third, it appears that media/technology use is closely tied to psychological troubles. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported in 2011 that the more children are exposed to screens, the more problems with noncompliance, inattention, negative mood, and academic failure arise. Screen time and mobile use has skyrocketed in youth over the past few decades. Anxiety issues are likely tied to much more than just the content of what youth consume (including the screens themselves).
The fourth factor is family/parental stability, including increased rates of anxiety in parents themselves. While the divorce rate has stabilized since a sharp increase from the 1950’s to the late 1970’s, unmarried households (including those with children) has climbed significantly since the divorce rate peaked. In 2000, 41 percent of all unmarried-couple households included a child under the age of 18. In 1987, it was 21%. Moving beyond political and moral debate, kids born to cohabiting parents versus married ones have over five times the risk of experiencing their parents’ separation. Kids living in cohabitating households (versus married ones) are more likely to suffer from psychological difficulties, including drug use, depression, and dropping out of school.
Number five is faith. Church attendance has steadily dropped over the past decades. Best estimates are that the percentage of adults who actually attended religious services during the previous weekend dropped from 42% in 1965 to 26% in 1994. Meanwhile, research indicates that faith can be a powerful buffer against anxiety and depression, especially when a person has a close relationship to a higher power.
Answers do exist to our worry woes. The question remains about whether we as parents and a community are willing to make needed changes, even if they contradict what is in vogue.