Today’s Teen Culture: Mental Health Awareness

[The information in this article was originally published on Shrink Tank in May 2017 and inspired from the hit show “13 Reasons Why”.]

What Is It Like to Be a Teen in 2017?

“Bye Bye Childhood!”

One of the biggest developments for childhood and adolescence is that puberty is occurring earlier than in past generations.  Girls are starting puberty around age 11 and boys around age 12.  But more and more girls are starting to develop as early as age 7.  One of the biggest drawbacks of earlier puberty is that emotional disruption is happening at an earlier age – which some speculate could be contributing to the rise of anxiety, depression, and suicide rates in teenagers.

teenLook at Me, I’m Special!”

Today’s teens have a pretty high view of themselves.  Self-reported rates of narcissism are skyrocketing.  We’re seeing some of the highest rates in the last 50 years. Narcissism refers to an inflated view of the self, coupled with relative indifference to others.  People who are high in this trait fail to help others unless there is immediate gain or recognition to themselves for doing so.  The characteristic that perhaps most distinguishes non-narcissists from narcissists is empathy.  Empathy involves the capacity and tendency to experience life not just from one’s own point of view but also from that of others, and to care about others’ wellbeing.  Approximately 70 percent of students today score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than the average student did thirty years ago.

“I’m Actually Quite Responsible.”

Despite earlier the earlier onset of puberty, fewer teens are smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol, binge drinking, or getting into a vehicle of a driver who has been drinking.  Teens are also waiting to engage in sexual activity, and since 1993, there has been a substantial decline in nearly all forms of youth violence.

“I’m so Stressed Out!”

According to APA’s 2013 Stress In America survey, teenagers are the most stressed-out age group in U.S.  They are worried about getting into college, paying for college, and what the future holds for their careers and future.  Yet, it’s never been a better time to go to college.  In fall 2014, 21 million students expected to attend American colleges and universities, a 5.7 million increase since fall 2000.  But higher enrollment isn’t translating into higher graduation rates.  Only 1 out of 3 college students graduate in 4 years, and only 60% complete their 4-year degree … in 6 years!  Childhood may be happening earlier, but adulthood seems to be starting later.

The mixture of emotional disruption, entitlement, and stress has contributed to a generation of teens that vacillate between overly sensitive and alarmingly self-aware.  Rates of depression and anxiety are rising amongst the teen demographic.  One out of four high school students have shown mild symptoms of depression, including:

  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • Deviations from normal appetite or sleep patterns

This era of “instant gratification” has led to a decrease in what therapists call “frustration tolerance” and how we handle upsetting situations.


“I Don’t Drink Much, But I Started Early!”

Despite positive trends with alcohol use among teens, the age of first use continues to drop.  According to the Harvard Health Publications. “Teenage Drinking,” the average starting age for drinking is 11 for boys and age 13 for girls.  The average age of first marijuana use is 14.  The three leading causes of death for 15 to 24-year-olds are automobile crashes, homicides and suicides – alcohol is a leading factor in all three.

“I Don’t Tolerate Intolerance!”

This generation is the most inclusive and diverse in the history of American teens.  For example, the show ’13 Reasons Why’ accurately represents that diversity.  The show avoids depicting one-dimensional representation of characters.  The queer/gay characters are not saints or villains, and their sexuality isn’t their sore defining characteristic.  Characters of different ethnicities are given complexity and nuance.  Zach, one of the primary Asian characters, is the star basketball player, something I don’t remember seeing in television or film.

Some might argue that the cast is overly PC, but that would be missing the point.  The point is that what adults and grown-ups may view as a PC casting ploy most teens see as an accurate reflection of their subculture or what they aspire for their high school communities.

“Let’s Chat … Text Me!”

The average teen spends more than 63 hours a week in front of a screen.  Because of multi-tasking, teens pack over 11 hours’ worth of media content into their 9 hours of daily screen time.  The show captures the normalizing of sexualized material over smartphones.  Forty-four percent of teens report sending or receiving a sexually explicit text, and 20% of teens report they have received a nude photo. More and more teens are communicating through electronic devices and not face-to-face.

teen“Who Can I Go To When I Need Help?”

School counselors often are an academic counselor, a social/emotional counselor, and a college guidance counselor.  That’s a lot of different hats to wear.  And America is facing a significant shortage of school counselors. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a ratio of 250 students to 1 counselor – only three states meet that ratio.  The national average is double the recommended ratio, at 500:1.  For some states, the ratio is closer to 1,000 students per single school counselor.

“It’s Hard to Talk to Mom and Dad, Even If I Want To!”

I previously wrote about how the show accurately captures the significance of communication.  I think the show accurately captures how difficult and uncomfortable it can be for families to openly talk about the stressors and hardships of teenage life.  Parent can come across to their teen as aloof and uncaring.  But what if they’re trying to give their kid space and autonomy? Teens can come across to parents as entitled and unappreciative?  But what if their focus and attention is heavily fixated on the problems of their peers?  Or their own challenges?  What if life is so taxing that they have little left to offer their family.

Most conflict between parents and adolescents/teens is not intense.  Conflict is often over mundane issues.  Most families do not report the teen years as a predominant period of rebellious behavior and extreme levels of conflict.  Parents cannot be expected to fully capture their teen’s experiences, but hopefully they can be aware of the trends that are happening within their child’s culture.

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