Anxiety symptoms have skyrocketed among kids and teens, especially since the COVID epidemic. Online learning and excessive screen time are common contributors. To help your family maintain psychological health and good judgment online, subscribe to our GetKidsInternetSafe App. With two 5-minute coaching videos (one for parents and one for the whole family), you’ll be up-to-date with cutting-edge information and outcome-tested wellness strategies. If you’ve heard any of the following complaints in your house, you can’t afford to wait.
“I can’t breathe, and my chest is killing me. My heart is racing. Am I having a heart attack? I am sweating, trembling, and dizzy. I think I’m going to vomit. My thoughts are racing. Have I gone crazy? What is wrong with me?” If this sounds familiar, you are probably one of three adults in the U.S. who’ve had an anxiety attack. Screens can have a significant effect on our levels of anxiety, but how?
What is anxiety?
In my 25+ years of clinical practice, I have treated many kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders. Sincethe advent of mobile screen technology, we have seen prevalence numbers increase dramatically. Twenty-five percent of 13- to 18-year-olds have mild to moderate anxiety with the median age of onset at11 years old.
There are five major types of anxiety disorder.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic worry about things that don’t warrant that level of concern.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by recurrent, intrusive thoughts and repetitive ritualistic behaviors, like counting, tapping, washing, or checking.
- Panic Disorder (PD) is a chronic dread of having a panic attack, which feels like intense fear and trouble breathing, heart racing, and dizziness.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is typically triggered by a terrifying ordeal.
- And finally, Social Phobia (SP) causes people to withdraw due to extreme self-consciousness or embarrassment around others and a fear of being scrutinized or judged.
How Screens Can Trigger Clinical Anxiety Symptoms
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Screens can be distracting and lead to wasted time and poor work performance. Not only do kids worry about those missed assignments, but too many hours of online learning can put them in a state of irritable exhaustion. In Dr. Bennett’s book, Screen Time in the Mean Time, she details how multitasking, which refers to interrupting one task to attend to another (like social media notifications during homework), burns brain fuel at a rapid rate – leading to mental brownout.
Keeping up with the Jones’s (or Kardashian’s) on social media can lead to obsessive scrolling and compulsive checking. We’ve all seen the notorious #GymSelfie or #FoodPorn that pops up on our news feed. Then there’s the #OutfitOfTheDay, #MCM (man crush Monday), #WCW (woman crush Wednesday), or your #TBT (throwback Thursday). Keeping up can feel overwhelming.
As Dr. B says in her article “Teaching Kids the Brain Traps of Video Games May Break the Spell,” “likes” are designed to tap into our evolutionarily-reinforced need to please our tribe – also called social capital. She elaborates, “When that notification pops up on our smartphone that somebody liked our post, we get a slight euphoria.” Getting the likes makes us want more (compulsive use patterns), and not getting the likes can send us into compare and despair. Big tech is aware of this and plays on our psychology to keep our eyes on the screen. Our attention has been commodified. The more we stay on screen, the more we fall victim to ads and the compulsion to buy.
Panic attacks happen with the autonomic nervous system, our survival center, gets triggered too easily. Being in a state of chronic stress can make us vulnerable. If one is on screen too much, instead of sleeping, eating, exercising, and socializing, they can experience chronic stress that can lead to panic. Dr. B says video games are also programmed to jack up your autonomic nervous system.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
In our GKIS article, “Live Streaming Can Cause PTSD in Adults and Children,” we detailed how watching live-streamed videos on social media and Youtube can lead to debilitating trauma symptoms. It’s critical to consider that screen content matters as much as, if not more than, screen time.
It doesn’t take much imagination to consider that social media can lead to fear of excessive social scrutiny. Dr. B writes about the normal adolescent defense called the imaginary audience. She writes “Teens can become extremely focused on their looks and very self-conscious, convinced that EVERYBODY is looking at them. As a result, they pay meticulous attention to clothing, makeup, hairstyle, body shape, and mannerisms. It’s as if they are carefully cultivating their brand to fit in and stand out among admired peers. Although imaginary audience has been observed among adolescents throughout history, social media may exacerbate anxiety. I believe compulsive urges to take perfect selfies are a healthy expression of the imaginary audience rather than the pathology of narcissism.”
It didn’t happen if you didn’t post it.
There is a popular saying that if you didn’t post about it, it didn’t really happen. Many teens are more invested in their virtual lives than they are in their nonvirtual lives. This makes sense considering they spend more waking time on screen than they do off screen!
Teen life often happens in a snapshot and not much else. Our kids are spending time at events, the beach, and vacation looking for that split moment to capture a picture guaranteeing them likes from their followers. Conversations are “Uh-huh” and “Mm, sure” without eye contact. Screen time is the master, and we’ve grown to accept that that is “just what teens do these days.”
Social media becomes a shrine of a person’s life, and if it is subpar, that person’s life is subpar. Sound extreme? It is, and it is real. The pressure to be perceived in a certain way consumes our children’s minds and impacts their self-esteem and can create an anxiety ridden child whose worries their life is constantly being judged and picked apart. A Canadian study found that the more time spent on screens, the higher the risk of developing anxiety was seen in children. Screen addiction is proving to be a real concern rather than a minor annoyance.
Driven to Distraction
Anxiety has the potential to impact not only the quality of time spent with family and friends but may also sever the most important relationship of all, the one with ourselves. Self-worth goes down, anxiety shifts to depression, and all because we judge others and ourselves through the safety of a screen, hidden in anonymity, and supported by strangers.
It can happen to anybody.
A child therapist friend of mine shared with me that she recently deleted all social media apps off her phone. She said she felt social media was consuming her and ultimately the cause of a lot of anxieties. Between clients, she browsed Facebook and Instagram instead of doing her mandatory briefings. Her briefings would get stacked up for weeks. Ultimately, this would contribute to her unease. This is a professional in mental health, one whom we would like to think could find a good balance. Now imagine your teenager…
What can we do about it?
Identify the triggers and recognize that you may be powerless against them without cutting down on screen time.
Set reasonable parameters.
Use time management and blocking apps.
Learn cognitive behavioral coping skills like breathing, mindfulness, cognitive restructuring, and meditation
Make your nonvirtual life more enriching
To help your tweens and teens learn about the risks of digital injury and master effective psychological wellness tools to avoid clinically impairing anxiety, check out our Social Media Readiness Course. And if you’re looking for help with setting reasonable screen limits and staying connected as a family, our weekly coaching videos in our GKIS App is just what you need to stay informed, consistent, and motivated. Thank you to Chad Flores for helping us recognize how screens may contribute to anxiety.
 Maras, D., Flament, M. F., Murray, M., Buchholz, A., Henderson, K. A., Obeid, N., & Goldfield, G. S. (2015). Screen time is associated with depression and anxiety in Canadian youth. Preventive Medicine: An International Journal Devoted To Practice And Theory, 73133-138. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.01.029