While pandemics have stoked fears for millennia, we are in new territory with COVID-19. For nearly a year the world has been living with a constant barrage of catastrophic news, the sheer volume of which is unprecedented—as is the speed with which it is shared by billions of people, many of whom are teens and young adults.
Almost all American high school and college students have access to smartphones and admit spending hours each day on social networking platforms, streaming websites, and mobile apps. A majority say they’re interested in keeping up with current events, but they rarely access traditional mainstream news organizations for information. Instead, 90 percent of teens and young adults get their news incidentally while using social media platforms fraught with misinformation, propaganda, hoaxes, false rumors, and conspiracy theories.
When students turn to social media, their endless newsfeeds breed fear and worry, and ‘push’ notifications warn of yet another dire emergency.
Each new message, video, and “ping” provokes a rush of stress hormones, raises blood pressure, and increases heart rate.
Daniel P. Villiers, Ph.D., a leading anxiety specialist, explains that, while anyone can be receptive to catastrophic thinking, teens and young adults—especially those with ADHD, LD, and social or mental health struggles—are particularly susceptible to “unintentionally fixating on worst possible outcomes.”
Social networking platforms are structured to exploit and bolster fear and obsessions, says Villiers. He points to The Social Dilemma, a documentary film that shows how the tech industry takes advantage of teens. In the film, Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, explains how social media lures impressionable teens and young adults— with strong hormones and weak executive functioning—into an emotional world of disaster news and daily disinformation, leaving them fearful, anxious, and in the untenable position of having to figure out what’s true and what’s not.
While the long-term psychological toll of COVID-19 on teens and young adults is unknown, research is clear that relentless streams of disaster news—both real and fake— can exacerbate an already tense situation. The CDC verifies that during the summer of COVID-19, almost one-third of young adults between 18 and 24 developed symptoms of anxiety or depression; 25.5% considered suicide; and rates of post-traumatic stress injury, substance use, and gaming addictions skyrocketed.
Following are strategies to help you control the amount and quality of news your teens consume and teach them how to evaluate information so they can better manage their fears and anxiety.
- Create opportunities to watch & discuss news together. Spending time together consuming news enables you to see what your teens know and how they’re coping. It also allows you to provide factual counterpoints: If your kids are using unreliable sources, share articles you find accurate and compelling; debunk memes, myths and misconceptions with numbers, statistics, and data; point out propaganda (“It’s China’s fault”) and labels that inflame (“evil”; “bad guys”).
- Encourage media literacy—the ability to critically evaluate information. Teach your kids to question what they read, watch, and hear so they’ll be able to distinguish truth from lies and factual reporting from misinformation and propaganda.
- Educate your kids on trustworthy sources. Discuss and compare material in various news sources (traditional news outlets; public health organizations; educational/medical research centers versus social media platforms, celebrities, and influencers; online gossip forums; and opinion sites. Assess the purpose of the site (grab attention or present reliable information?) and examine how each source promotes timely, accurate, and clear information (use of trained journalists and fact checkers; notes what is ‘opinion’; promotes transparency by disclosing conflicts of interest/ funders).
- View & analyze relevant documentary films together. A number of recent documentaries explore the effects of technology on our brains and the impact of social media on our lives (The Social Dilemma; The Great Hack; LIKE). Pause and discuss what you’re seeing in the context of your family’s values, and the choices each of you might make.
- Connect what they see to how they feel. Talk about the impact of constant bad news—particularly “fake news” or propaganda—on their health and wellbeing (mood changes, ability to make informed decisions, quality of sleep, etc.).
- Together develop a tech “contract” aimed at improving their wellbeing: set daily “tech time” for peer interaction through Zoom/ Skype/ FaceTime; ensure smartphones are turned off before bedtime and throughout the night; restrict access to “sensational news” outlets.
Your teens may be more willing to work with you on setting realistic boundaries once they understand the unhealthy and dangerous personal implications that round-the-clock disaster news has on them, especially when it’s from deceptive and unreliable sources.
This article is based on a Newport Healthcare/The Anxiety Institute webinar, The Psychological Impact of Disaster News on Children & Family: Enhancing Resilience and Setting Boundaries in an Age of Anxiety, by Daniel P. Villiers, PhD. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.