What Causes More Anxiety in Children: School or a Smartphone?

The NY Times recently published a long article “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” In my many years in the homeschooling community I have seen how removing children from stressful school situations can become a boon to their health and intelligence. However, the main thrust of this article was about pushing children back into school by facing their fears with exposure therapy—forcing the patients to confront their fears directly—which is cited as the most effective way to get these students to function in a conventional school setting. All treatments had the goal of making the student conform to the rules and social order of school, rather than question if those structures are the causes of anxiety. Indeed, popular thinking and those who control school policies want the public to respect school as the norm to which children must be bent to fit or else they won’t amount to anything as adults. The article continually mentions the stresses school causes children but it is clear that these children must be modified to better adapt to school as it is.

When a child is truly banging their head against the wall over school why shouldn’t they be removed from the situation that is causing them such stress? Why must they endure the bed of Procrustes to be made to fit into high school and then college?

Such questions are not addressed, for the article sees a potential cause of teenagers’ anxiety in smartphones:

“Anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram, but many of the parents I spoke to worried that their kids’ digital habits—round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers—were partly to blame for their children’s struggles. To my surprise, anxious teenagers tended to agree. At Mountain Valley, I listened as a college student went on a philosophical rant about his generation’s relationship to social media. “I don’t think we realize how much it’s affecting our moods and personalities,” he said. “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without but that’s making us crazy.”

The increase in the amounts of time and money spent making school more rigorous for children since the 1980s are rarely discussed as potential causes of anxiety in teenagers. School is an institution we can’t question without being labeled disloyal to American democracy, yet it is one of the most undemocratic institutions society has created. There really aren’t any options besides school for a child unless their parents have money to send them elsewhere or they are willing to try homeschooling, so there is an undercurrent of fatalism present among our youth, who see only going to school or being a dropout as their choice.

Since the 1980s the United States has spent billions of dollars on massive education reforms—Back to Basics, Excellence in Education, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds, and their aftermath, Common Core—yet student engagement in school continues to drop as they march up grade levels, teachers feel undervalued, and job turnover is high, costing schools over $7 billion a year. Most sadly, the Center for Disease Control notes suicide as the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24 and that 1 in 12 high school students attempt to commit suicide. The August 2017 Harper’s magazine cites a 101 percent increase “in the number of visits to U.S. children’s hospitals for suicidal attempts or thoughts.” In May 2017 the Pediatric Academic Societies wrote: “The number of children and adolescents admitted to children’s hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled during the last decade.”

Why is life, and school in particular, so bleak for our young and their teachers despite these reform efforts? What else can we do?

I don’t think social media is the main culprit to focus on; using technology to escape the tedium of school is reasonable behavior, though, like anything, when it becomes an obsession it crosses a line and needs to be addressed. Next, consider that school today consumes far more time and energy for children than at any other time in our history. Since the dawn of time children were an integral part of adult daily life, for better or worse, but since the Industrial Revolution we’ve deliberately kept them out of adult society to focus them on school instruction, school schedules, and school awards.

Our children attend school at earlier ages and graduate at older ages than they did in previous generations; we make going to college a modern, tribal ritual that socially shames those who can’t afford it or who don’t thrive there; we focus on degrees awarded but not on competencies earned outside of degree programs; we increase standardized testing and the pressure on teachers and students to produce better grades; we reduce play and private time for children outside of school; we eliminate recess and afterschool programs inside school and turn them into instruction and homework time. This is considered to be the norm we want to make children adjust to. Is it any wonder they are anxious?