School counsellor Jean Andrews sees “the highest highs and the lowest lows” of our youth.
“There is incredible potential in our youth to change the world. Give them the right tools and they will fly.”
However, she says the youth of today live in vastly different worlds from their parents, and have one vastly different tool at their fingertips.
The toll of social media
Andrews, who holds the New Zealand Association of Counsellors guidance counsellor portfolio, says youth are now digital citizens.
“Social media is an incredible tool that has made their world exponentially bigger. Everything is accessible at the push of a button.”
She says adolescents now have far more knowledge and awareness of the world, for better and worse.“Young adult brains are still growing. They don’t have the capacity to deal with some of these things.”
While social media provides wider experiences and makes some youth feel empowered, she says, there is a flip side.
“Social media has made youth very aware of their own limitations, which feeds into anxiety and low mood. There is an expectation that they have to be superhuman. It creates a deficit mentality in them.”
Teens are constantly told they “aren’t brainy enough, aren’t beautiful enough, they don’t have enough friends on Facebook,” she says. “It affects them deeply.”
Manaia Primary Health Organisation clinical director Dr Aniva Lawrence says social media is a big concern for youth health.
“It’s changed the traditional face-to-face aspect and has really changed the way of relationships.”
Bullying is now present at all times, in all spaces, 24-7, she says. “Online bullying is a real concern. It’s with youth all the time now. It’s not left at the school gate. Words hurts and having it there, in writing, you react much stronger to it.”
She says the online world also leads to children being exposed to material earlier.
“Accessibility to pornography is a big issues. We’re exposed to things at a much younger age now, all at the push of a button.”
The online rise of pornography leads to youth facing sexual dysfunction and a misinterpretation of reality and fantasy. “The impact of social media is making it much more of a complex time for our young people.”
Drop in risky behaviours
University of Auckland associate professor Dr Simon Denny says researchers have found a reduction in risky behaviours by youth over the past two decades.
“So we’re seeing less binge drinking, motor vehicle incidents, less hard drugs being taken.”
Coincidentally, this drop in risky behaviour occurred around the same time the iPhone was released in 2007.
“So there is some discussion about maybe our youth are staying home on social media, rather than going out doing these things. Maybe they’re better informed because of what they’re finding on the internet.”
He says social media does not mean “doom and gloom” for youth health “but it does need to be a balance”.
Vaping a growing concern
Denny, an adolescent health research and paediatrician, says e-cigarettes, or vaping, is a growing concern within the medical fraternity in terms of youth health. He says there is a division in public health about vaping “but it is massively concerning to me”.
He says when e-cigarettes first arrived in New Zealand, there were videos showing ‘smoke tricks’ that many believed to be harmless.
“What we now know is those videos were a really sophisticated marketing campaign. Youth saw the videos, saw e-cigarettes being marketed as nicotine-free, and took up the habit.
“We now know that they aren’t nicotine-free. So now we have a whole new generation hooked on them.”
He says e-cigarettes are an accepted part of society now. “They are harder to police and we need better regulation. It’s a huge health problem that we are facing.”
Denny says there is no research yet on the numbers of youth who have taken up vaping. A cross-sectional study of secondary school students, called Youth2000, will ask that question later this year.
Lawrence agrees that vaping is an issue for today’s youth. She says there is no long-term, robust, reliable research about the impact of vaping or its effectiveness as a smoking cessation tool.
“Emerging research has started to show it can be slightly better, but it’s not without its risks.”
Accessibility to vaping equipment is also a concern, she says, with rising numbers of youth taking it up.
Transgender, family and health issues
Denny says that transgender issues were also having a big impact on youth health.
“This affects about one to two percent of youth, which doesn’t sound a lot, but it’s huge. If you put it across the country, it’s the same level as diabetes.”
He says support services are desperately required.
“These youth are really struggling. We’ve had a huge expansion of need in this area, but we don’t have the services.”
He says transgender youth have much higher rates of suicide ideation and attempts than the general population.
“Mental health services are struggling. There is a huge need for more people working in this area.”
Andrews says today’s youth are also more aware of the economic disadvantages they face, which adds to their mental load.
“I have children who come to school with no food and they’re anxious about where mum and dad are going to get the money to get food.”
Divorce and changing family dynamics also weigh on adolescents’ minds, Andrews said.
“When the family breaks down, those connections are lost and children have to adapt. They can often end up feeling like the spare wheel.”
Denny also says that chronic pain and obesity are overlooked aspects of youth health.
“Again, we don’t know the numbers of youth with chronic pain, but we know we need more specialists in this area.”
Obesity continues to be an issue, with “no headway” being made in that area, he says.
“Marketing to our children and youth is still prevalent. It’s still there and it needs to be banned in my opinion. We’ve seen no change in obesity rates.”
Parents: be present
Andrews says parents and caregivers of adolescents should focus on being present.
“It’s not about providing all the things, but it is about being there for the little things.”
Parents needed to reassure children and provide boundaries to protect them.
“We live in a push-button society and really, as parents we need to be setting up some boundaries and limits around that.”
She says providing unconditional love and a strong sense of security can help teens navigate adolescence.
“You can’t problem-proof children, but you can role model the resilience that they will need.”
Denny says mental health is an important aspect of helping youth.
“It’s really a three-pronged approach. The first is known as cognitive behaviour therapy, which is as cheesy as ‘change your thoughts, change your feelings’.”
He says it is important to understand that 25 percent of youth are facing “significant trauma”, and those youth have five to six times the suicide rates of their peers.
“Instead of labels and diagnoses, these kids need some compassion.”
He says it is also important to teach youth about perceptual positioning.
“This is about recognising your own perspective and other’s perspectives. Sometimes you do need to take a step out and look at it from another view.”
Denny says a cohesive approach to supporting youth is important. “We have lots of resources to help at the bottom of the cliff, what about the top?”
He says health and education professionals need to work together. “It can be tricky to teach our youth these things. We all need to model them – educators, parents, communities. Everyone. We can all play our part.”
Andrews says making sure children also have realistic expectations is a vital message.
“Best is good enough. Really. Do your best, live your own success. That’s the message we want to be hearing.”
Andrews says youth of today are far more socially aware than ever before. “They want change and they aren’t afraid to make it happen.”
She says the climate change protests and the vigils organised by youth in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings are proof of that.
“They are incredible. I see so much hope and light in the youth of today.”