Help Tweens and Teens Clean Up Their Feeds

Eliminate the posts that lead to negative emotions, and load up on stuff that feeds your soul. By Caroline Knorr 
Help Tweens and Teens Clean Up Their Feeds

You know that girl from TV — the one whose Instagram always looks perfect even with #nofilter? Or what about that amazing singer on musical.lywhom you can’t believe is only 14? And then there’s that kid whose Snapchat stories of Coachella got 500 views. Your kids may be following people like this right now. Obsessing. Over. Every. Detail. And starting to feel kind of crappy about it.

Keeping tabs on the rich, famous, and just-plain-cool is nothing new, of course. But social media can take that fixation to a pretty dark place. The feeling is common enough that some doctors are calling it social media anxiety disorder (SMAD) — although what most kids have is more like FOMO… on steroids. While it’s tough to see your kid in despair, there’s a good solution that doesn’t require an all-out social media ban: Just help your kid clean up their feed.

Self-comparison is a natural part of the tween and teen years. And for most kids, so is social media. While there are plenty of good things kids get out of their online connections, sometimes the combo can lead to a negative feedback loop that gnaws away at them. Depending on whom they’re following and what’s going on in their lives, their overall self-assessment can cycle from wistful (“I wish I was like that”) to highly critical (“What’s wrong with me that I can’t be like that?”). Even for kids who know when to close their laptops and move on, their self-esteem may take a hit. And for the more self-critical, anxiety and depression are real risks.

If your kid mostly enjoys social media but suffers the occasional bout of self-doubt, help them find a healthier balance. Ask if — or what — they’re already doing to take care of themselves. They may already be tweaking their social media feeds to limit posts that make them feel bad. Or they may be intentionally trying to curb the endless scrolling through the cool kid’s Insta. Work together to prune out the parts of their social media feeds that trap them into judgy comparisons, and encourage the stuff that bolsters positive social connections, supportive relationships, and validation of their inner qualities.

Encouraging your kids to see and appreciate their individual strengths has always been a part of parenting. And learning to stop comparing yourself to others is a part of growing up. By helping kids clean up their feeds, you’re bringing together two critical aspects of raising kids in the digital age. Try these tips:

Identify the triggers. Maybe it’s a certain couple who always look happy and in love, when your kid really wants a romantic relationship. Maybe it’s ads from a dog-toy delivery service that makes your kid miss your old mutt. Explore what’s behind their emotions. Sharing your own FOMO-induced feelings will likely get your kid to open up. Once they recognize the cause of their emotions, they can take steps to manage triggers.

Fine-tune levels of engagement. All social media offers ways to see and hear less from your contacts — without totally unfriending them. Check out settings such as these from popular platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter: unfollow (you’re still friends, but their posts won’t show up in your feed); hide post (see fewer posts from someone); snooze (temporarily stop seeing posts); mute (turn them off for a while); and do not disturb (temporarily block the person).

Turn off notifications. Most social media apps send updates — and none of them are life-and-death. To prevent your kid from interruptions — especially ones that might trigger negative thoughts — you can encourage your kid to check their social media once or twice at a certain time of day — say, 4 p.m. That might be a stretch, but you can still encourage them to turn off notifications either in the app itself or on their phone.

Follow people who nourish your soul. Kim Kardashian may be all over social media, but there are lots of folks who post uplifting, life-affirming, thoughtful, inspiring things that get kids thinking — and maybe even behaving — in ways that make them feel good about themselves. Follow these kinds of people.

Suggest apps to help with focus. Just as you can use technology to excess, you can use it to rein yourself in. These productivity apps help keep kids on task, boost concentration, and remind you to stop doing stuff that’s not good for you.

Eighth Grade Is a Movie About Middle School That Will Leave Adults in Tears

Slate

Bo Burnham’s funny, original debut feature is astonishingly mature.

A teenage girl in a swimming pool.
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.
A24

“The topic of today’s video is being yourself,” stammers 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in one of the self-recorded advice videos she periodically posts to her YouTube channel. It’s hard to imagine any topic on which this insecure, awkward girl, with her apologetically slumped shoulders and digitally airbrushed-out acne, would make for a less convincing expert. As her generally unhappy middle school experience enters its final excruciating week, Kayla contends with some standardly bad teenage experiences: being awarded the superlative of “Most Quiet” at an end-of-year ceremony, being invisible to the “Best Eyes”–winning classmate she’s crushed out on (Luke Prael), and being pestered by her loving, hovering single dad (Josh Hamilton) to—get this—stop looking at Instagram over dinner and talk to him.

Kayla will later deal with scarier and dodgier situations than these run-of-the-mill indignities, even if Eighth Grade mercifully never goes as dark as first-time writer-director Bo Burnham sometimes seem to hint it will. The funny, heartfelt, and utterly original Eighth Grade is a movie about middle school starring real middle school–age kids, to which one might enjoyably take actual middle schoolers—so long as they and their parents are willing to tolerate a reasonably high degree of shared comic embarrassment. Whether or not you currently have a preteen child, every adult has been one, and it’s almost neurologically impossible not to avert your face in burning-cheeked sympathy when Kayla, face to face with the popular girls she both longs to impress and fears like the ego-destroying monsters they can be, can only summon the emptiest sycophantic banter. “By the way, I like your shirt a lot. It’s, like, so cool.” Long pause. “I have a … shirt … too.”

Eighth Grade alternates such moments of hyperreal cringe comedy with more stylized scenes filmed from Kayla’s point of view. A visit to her boorish beloved’s Instagram feed sends her down a social media spiral, captured in a montage of Snapchat selfies and BuzzFeed quizzes set to Enya’s hypnotic New Age classic “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away).” These dreamlike passages often end abruptly with the forced removal of headphones from Kayla’s ears, emphasizing the break between banal everyday reality and the curated fantasy space of social media. But Eighth Grade never strains for topicality or hand-wrings at the state of Today’s Youth: There’s a lightness and simplicity to this affectionate portrait of a girl dipping a first toe in the rushing waters of 21st-century teenagerdom.

Kayla’s omnipresent iPhone can be a vector of social anxiety and low self-esteem, but, like the YouTube videos she posts into the apparent void, it can also serve as a medium of connection. After she’s paired with a high school student (Emily Robinson) for a daylong tour of the school she’s about to move on to, the two become unexpectedly friendly, and a dazzled Kayla gets a glimpse of the only good thing about her current phase of life: Eventually, it ends. “Now I can’t wait to grow up,” she confides to her trusty webcam. But her newfound faith in the future is tested, heartstoppingly, by an encounter with an older boy (Daniel Zolghadri) who tries to pressure Kayla into a too-much-too-soon round of truth or dare.

The 27-year-old Burnham, making a graceful and assured debut as a writer-director, already has a devoted following as a stand-up comedian. In fact, his career began at age 16 in exactly the place we first see Kayla: YouTube. In his most recent Netflix special Make Happy, Burnham uses his considerable versatility—he can sing, dance, take to the keyboard to pound out his own satirical pop ballads, and generally shift genres and tones on a dime—to mount a protest against stand-up comedy as a form. By the end of the hour, he’s exposed both the raw desire for approval that drives him to perform in the first place and the need for mass catharsis via entertainment that fills seats at comedy shows. At first glance, this kind of confrontational virtuosity would seem at odds with the emotional directness of Eighth Grade, which, though it showcases many acts of intentional and unintentional cruelty, is a deeply kind movie, curious and nonjudgmental even about the characters who in most coming-of-age films would be hissable villains. But some of the same themes that animate Burnham’s stand-up—his willingness to look at aspects of the modern experience that tend to be omitted from the stories we tell, his glee at subverting audience expectations—are also at play in his first feature.

Impressive as Burnham’s achievement is, Eighth Grade could never hit the heights it does without the right actress in the demanding lead role. Elsie Fisher—who was only 14 when the movie premiered at Sundance, with experience as a child voice actor in the Despicable Me franchise—delivers her “like”-heavy dialogue with such naturalism you might think the lines are improvised. But Burnham has said in interviews that the film is more scripted than it appears, and the story beats that it hits in its brisk 90-minute runtime are too precisely timed to be the result of adolescent ad-libbing. Though they get less screen time than Fisher, the rest of the teen actors, especially Jake Ryan as an earnest, geeky boy who takes a shine to Kayla at a pool party, are uniformly wonderful. And as Kayla’s devoted but confounded father, who’s alternately commanded to talk more, smile less, “stop looking weird and sad,” and just shut up and drive her to the mall, Josh Hamilton gives an exemplary performance, funny and sensitive and quietly soul-baring. A late scene by a campfire, in which Kayla’s dad struggles to articulate what watching her grow from babyhood has meant to him, will do a thorough job of flushing out any eye irritants that might have been bothering you on the way into the theater.

Eighth Grade doesn’t overstay its welcome or beg for the viewer’s approval. As Kayla records her last advice video of the school year, mortifying catchphrase and all, you’re sad to see her go, glad for the gains in self-confidence she’s made, and curious to know what she’ll do next. The same is true of Bo Burnham, who, unlike his tentative protagonist, arrives on the big screen already fully grown.

Research Insights: Independent School Health Check Examines Teen Support Systems

Here are results of research regarding the importance of children having connections with trusted adults.  Sacred Heart’s advisory program and efforts to “build community as a Christian value” help enormously in these areas.  This article serves as an important reminder of the positive benefits of a strong partnership between home and school.

NAIS

Summer 2018

By Rosemary Baggish and Peter Wells

At times, it might seem like teens want nothing to do with adults. But research from Independent School Health Check (ISHC) shows that the opposite is true. In 2007, we created ISHC, a computer-based survey, to more accurately gauge the experience of adolescents in independent schools. The ISHC assesses students’ perceptions, feelings, and behaviors regarding their schools, families, and friends as well as the risk and protective factors that affect their health and well-being. The survey assesses school attitudes and motivation, school pressure, parental supervision, social and emotional connections to adults and peers, substance use, sexuality, sleep, and diet.

Over the past 11 years, the ISHC has collected data from 80,816 middle and high school students in 102 independent schools; most schools have conducted the survey multiple times. Schools that conduct surveys typically use the data to develop and fine-tune health and wellness programs, to identify areas that need attention, as well as areas of particular strength.

One area of inquiry for the ISHC is a student’s relationship with adults. The survey asks students to rate “the adult(s) who is primarily responsible for caring for [them] on a daily basis” on behaviors such as “expresses interest in my life,” “expects me to ask if I can go out,” and “supports my efforts in sports, music, or other activities.” The survey also asks students to rate their perceptions of teachers including statements such as “teachers at my school pay attention to my personal needs, not just academic performance,” and “my teachers treat me with respect.”

Over the years, we have been impressed by the high level of engagement that so many parents maintain, and by the extent to which so many students feel that their teachers support their personal needs as well as their academic needs.

The Findings

Not all parents are supportive, however, nor do all students find encouraging adults in schools—perhaps because they were already wary about trusting an adult. Nevertheless, when we track what happens to adolescents without a reliable adult to talk to and depend on, we find that these are young people at greater risk. Conversely, when adolescents have an adult to talk with, there is benefit to both the student and to the school.

The ISHC asks several questions about students’ interactions with the adults in their lives. More than three-quarters say they “have an adult to talk to on a regular basis about what is going on in [their] life.” About 84 percent agree that “if faced with a really important question or serious problem, [they] would talk to an adult.” Mothers are the adults who students talk to the most (81.9 percent), followed by fathers (62.8 percent). Teachers (26 percent), counselors (24.6 percent), and coaches (15.4 percent) are also adults students turn to.

In high-stakes behavior, the absence of adult support is alarming. For those adolescents who think their parents are not interested or supportive, the likelihood of suicidal thoughts triples. Students who think their teachers are not attentive to their needs are twice as likely to report self-harm or suicidal thoughts. These students are also more likely to break school rules and have a much lower sense of belonging.

How Schools Can Help

What can schools do to encourage students to have attachments to adults in the community? They can build on the already effective outreach of the adults in the school community by supporting adviser programs. Offer advisers training, support, and accountability to guide them so they are able to productively engage with students and their parents. Schools can enhance their programs by offering training in communication strategies, scheduling regular adviser times, and expecting that advisers maintain contact with their advisees and their parents/guardians.

Building a working connection with families is another important strategy for enhancing students’ perception that adults are available to them. In addition to the standard parent meetings and activities that schools offer, it is important to encourage parents/guardians to reach out to their child’s adviser with any questions or concerns about their child, their family, or the school program. An effective adviser program can function as a safety net for all students when they experience academic, social, or personal problems in school and at home. ▪

To see schools that have participated, surveys available, and more, visit independentschoolhealth.com.

AUTHOR

Rosemary Baggish

Rosemary Baggish developed Independent School Health Check, a project of BMW Consulting LLC.

 

Peter Wells

Peter Wells developed Independent School Health Check, a project of BMW Consulting LLC.

How Many Teenage Girls Deliberately Harm Themselves? Nearly 1 in 4, Survey Finds.

The New York Times

Rates of self-injury are even higher in parts of the United States, according to government data. Boys are half as likely to harm themselves.

  • Image
An increase in self-injuries, especially among teenage girls, showed up in a survey of 65,000 high school students. CreditYoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images

Up to 30 percent of teenage girls in some parts of the United States say they have intentionally injured themselves without aiming to commit suicide, researchers have found.

About one in four adolescent girls deliberately harmed herself in the previous year, often by cutting or burning, compared to about one in 10 boys.

The overall prevalence of self-harm was almost 18 percent.

“These numbers are very high for both genders — that surprised me,” said Martin A. Monto, a sociologist at the University of Portland and lead author of the new research.

Dr. Monto and his colleagues drew on data from a risk behavior survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015. Their report, published online in the American Journal of Public Health, included almost 65,000 public high school students in 11 states.

Most previous studies have examined self-harm among adolescents only in developed countries, in general, or in American adolescents admitted to a clinical setting.

Delaware reported the lowest rates of deliberate injury: 6.4 percent among boys and 17.7 percent among girls. The highest rates were found among boys in Nevada (14.8 percent) and girls in Idaho (30.8 percent).

Adolescents of both sexes reported injuring themselves at rates above 20 percent in Idaho, Kentucky, Nevada and New Mexico. Girls reported self-injury at twice the rate of boys in all but two states.

The results varied by race. More than 20 percent of Native American students reported self-harm, followed by Hispanic, white and Asian students. Only 12 percent of black students reported self-injury.

The behavior also declined with age, from 19.4 percent among 14-year-olds to 14.7 percent among 18-year-olds.

There are wide gaps in researchers’ understanding of self-harm, Dr. Monto noted: “Is adolescence more difficult in some states than in others? What does it actually mean to them when they do it? How is the behavior learned and regarded differently in different cultures?”

Adolescent girls who participated in the survey were more likely than boys to report belonging to the L.G.B.T. community and having been sexually assaulted or bullied online. But males were more likely to report smoking and using drugs. All of those factors were at least somewhat linked with purposeful injury.

The C.D.C. only recently began asking adolescents about self-injury, so it is unclear whether there has been a significant uptick in prevalence over generations.

The practice is so widespread across both sexes that addressing it on a case-by-case basis — instead of as a public health problem — may be insufficient, the researchers said.

“Parents who deal with this often think their child is a clinical anomaly,” Dr. Monti said. “It’s certainly not a healthy behavior — it’s harmful. But if your child has done this, the data shows that it doesn’t make them an unusually ill person.”

The Perils Of Pushing Kids Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn To Back Off

Kids in elite high schools face increasing pressures from peers, teachers and parents.

Francesco Zorzi for NPR

On New Year’s Eve, back in 2012, Savannah Eason retreated into her bedroom and picked up a pair of scissors.

“I was holding them up to my palm as if to cut myself,” she says. “Clearly what was happening was I needed someone to do something.”

Her dad managed to wrestle the scissors from her hands, but that night it had become clear she needed help.

“It was really scary,” she recalls. “I was sobbing the whole time.”

Savannah was in high school at the time. She says the pressure she felt to succeed — to aim high — had left her anxious and depressed.

“The thoughts that would go through my head were ‘this would be so much easier if I wasn’t alive, and I just didn’t have to do anything anymore.’ ”

Looking back Savannah, now 23, says the pressure started early.

She told us her story as we sat at the kitchen table of her childhood home in Wilton, Conn., a wealthy community near New York. Her dad commutes to the city where he works in finance.

From the outside, Savannah’s life may have appeared picture-perfect: two well-educated, loving parents; a beautiful home; siblings and lots of friends.

From an early age, Savannah says, she was considered one of the smart kids, and when she arrived at Wilton High School, she was surrounded by many other high achievers. Lots of kids take a heavy load of Advanced Placement and honors courses. They play varsity or club sports and are involved in lots of extracurricular activities.

But by sophomore year, the high expectations began to feel like a trap. Like many kids at her school – and at elite high schools across the country – she felt compelled to push herself to get good grades and get into a top college.

“Even though I was getting A’s and B’s, mostly A’s, in all my classes — all my honors classes — I still felt it wasn’t good enough,” Savannah says.

No matter how well she did, someone else was doing better. “The pressure I put on myself was out of control,” she says. She says she felt the pressure all around her — from peers, teachers and her parents.

Newfound awareness of these kinds of struggles, has started a conversation — and new initiatives — in her community. A group of parents is trying to shift the culture to balance the focus on achievement with an emphasis on well-being. Part of the equation is freeing up kids to find their own motivation and life path. There is a growing body of evidence pointing to elevated risks of anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol use among kids raised in privileged communities.

A wake-up call

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, feels she was partly to blame for the pressure Savannah felt.

“I know I was talking to her by eighth grade,” Genevieve recalls, “about how she needed to find out what her passions were, so she could get involved in the right activities … so that would look good on her college applications.”

But after Savannah’s problems began, Genevieve says, she backed off. She helped Savannah drop some of her tougher courses. And the family started to focus on well-being.

“Up to that point, I totally bought into the idea we’re supposed to push our kids to achieve. When they encounter obstacles, we push [them] to overcome those,” Genevieve says. But pushing too hard can backfire.

Given the pressure-cooker environment in her community, Genevieve wondered how many other teens may also be struggling.

In order to find out, she got together with some other parents and counselors — and worked with Wilton High School to do something very unusual. They hired a psychologist to come in and assess the student body.

On the day we visited, the seniors were preparing for graduation. In the main hallway, there was a bulletin board on which students have each pinned the logo of the college they plan to attend. We saw Dartmouth, Yale, Vanderbilt, Harvard — and many other highly selective universities.

Clearly, many kids here excel. But the results of the mental health assessment showed that a lot of kids struggle, too.

“The survey results definitely suggested that Wilton High School’s rates of anxiety and depression with students was higher than national averages — significantly higher,” says school principal Robert O’Donnell. He says he was surprised and concerned.

About 1,200 students — almost the entire student body — took the survey, known as the Youth Self-Report. The survey found that compared with a national norm of 7 percent, about 30 percent of Wilton High School students had above average levels of internalizing symptoms. These include feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression. It also includes physical problems that can be linked to emotional distress such as headaches or stomachaches. Often, kids may hide these feelings.

The survey also found that rates of alcohol and drug use among Wilton students were higher than average, too. We asked the psychologist who did the assessment whether she was surprised by what she found.

“This is by no means unique to Wilton. It’s a common phenomenon across high-achieving schools,” says Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College and founder of Authentic Connections, a nonprofit that aims to build resilience in communities and schools.

Luthar has been studying adolescents for more than 20 years. She has published several studies that document the elevated rates of drug and alcohol use by kids who grow up in privileged communities — where incomes and expectations are high. Surprisingly, she says, the rates rival what she has documented in low-income, urban schools.

“What we’ve found is that kids in high-achieving, relatively affluent communities are reporting higher levels of substance use than inner-city kids and levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms are also commensurate — if not greater,” Luthar says.

Her most recent study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that rates of substance abuse remain high among upper-middle-class kids, as they enter early adulthood. The alcohol or drugs are a form of self-medication.

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, says she is not surprised by Luthar’s findings.

“People choose communities like this to give their children opportunities, but it comes at a cost,” Eason says.

The survey findings have been a wake-up call for the community of Wilton. “A lot of people were in denial,” says Vanessa Elias. The mother of three children is the president of the Wilton Youth Council, which aims to promote the emotional well-being of the community.

“People don’t talk about these things,” Elias says. Families often struggle silently, not realizing that their friends’ or neighbors’ kids are experiencing the same struggles. “So having an opportunity to create a conversation about this was really important,” she says.

Dialing back the pressure

The community has lots of ideas about how to tackle these issues.

The high school is focused on continuing to train counselors, and student-directed initiatives are aimed at raising awareness about anxiety and depression.

Wilton is also offering a resilience training program — GoZen! — to elementary school students. It’s a research-based program that teaches coping and happiness skills. There’s a body of evidence to show that resilience training can help reduce symptoms of depressive or negative thinking among children.

At home, Elias says, she has tried to create a low-stress environment for her children. For instance, she limits the number of after-school activities her kids participate in so they don’t spend every afternoon being driven around, overscheduled. She also limits homework time in the evening for her youngest daughter — a third-grader. As a result, “there’s a lot less friction in the household,” she says.

And when she realized that the focus on standardized testing was making one of her daughters anxious in first grade — and giving her stomachaches — she opted her two youngest children out of standardized testing.

Elias says she has been influenced by the book How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, which aims to help parents break free of what the author dubs the “over-parenting trap.”

But to really change things — to dial back the focus on academic achievement at all costs — will require a culture shift, says Eason.

“We have to broaden our definitions of success and celebrate more kinds of success,” she says.

For Eason’s daughter, Savannah, this means forging a new path.

“I don’t want to work on Wall Street; that sounds miserable to me,” Savannah says.

She enrolled in culinary school, and she is training to be a pastry chef.

“I’m never going to live the same lifestyle I did growing up,” Savannah says, “I’m not going to make that much money, but that’s OK.”

She has her own set of priorities. “It’s not about how big your house is and what kind of car you drive. It’s about happiness and peace.”

This is a different kind of success, one that her parents are now celebrating with her.

“I spend hours making a cake, and my favorite part is when you cut it up and people eat it,” Savannah says. “That’s the part when you bring joy to people, and that’s what’s important to me now.”

Tips To Dial Back The Pressure

Start a conversation — and keep it going

“Ask your kids the question ‘Am I pushing you too hard?’ ” says Colleen Fawcett, Wilton Youth Services coordinator. Don’t just ask once, she says, ask it periodically and keep the line of communication open.

Don’t supervise everything

“It’s OK to let them out of your sight,” says Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, an organization that promotes childhood resilience. Let kids choose activities to do by themselves, like going to the store or walking to the park. Try this exercise from Let Grow for giving kids more control, which can buffer anxiety and foster self-confidence.

Let them play

Unlike supervised activities, Skenazy says, free play teaches kids how to negotiate, compromise, make friends and communicate. “When we deprive children of unstructured playtime, they don’t learn how to mature or deal with frustration or fear,” she says.

Underschedule

“Try to counterbalance the highly competitive culture,” says parent Vanessa Elias. Resist the temptation to overschedule your kids. Encourage them to limit their organized activities, and emphasize family time and downtime.

Kids do not spend nearly enough time outside. Here’s how (and why) to change that.

May 29 

(iStock)

As the weather turns warmer and the days are longer, many parents are looking forward to spending more quality time with the family. A great place to start is by taking your kids outdoors — a lot. As the parent of a 6-year old and a 10-month-old, I think a lot about how our family can provide experiences that help them reach their potential. As the head of the National Wildlife Federation, I am also focused on where children spend their time, and how it impacts their lives.

Here is a sobering statistic: The average American child spends five to eight hours a day in front of a digital screen, often at the expense of unstructured play in nature. The good news is departing from this trend is easier than you think, and quality outside time can fit into even the busiest of schedules. It is worth the effort; the benefits go beyond a little time spent in the fresh air.

Over the past few decades, children’s relationship with the great outdoors and nature has changed dramatically. Since the 1990s researchers have noticed a shift in how children spend their free time. The days of the free-range childhood, where kids spend hours outside playing in local parks, building forts, fording streams and climbing trees, have been mostly replaced by video games, television watching and organized activities such as sports and clubs. We have traded green time for screen time — and it has had an impact on kids’ well-being and development. Our approach to raising children has changed as well, as parents who allowed kids to play largely unsupervised from dawn to the dinner bell have yielded to “helicopter parents” who are afraid to allow their children to roam free, because of perceived safety concerns.

So if childhood has changed, why is it still important for kids to spend time in nature? Here are a few of the benefits:

  1. Better school performance. Time spent in nature and increased fitness improve cognitive function.
  2. More creativity. Outdoor play uses and nurtures the imagination.
  3. Much higher levels of fitness. Kids are more active when they are outdoors.
  4. More friends. Children who organize their own games and participate in unstructured group activities are less solitary and learn to interact with their peers.
  5. Less depression and hyperactivity. Time in nature is soothing, improves mood and reduces stress. It can also increase kids’ attention span, because things move at a slower pace than they do on the screen.
  6. Stronger bones. Exposure to natural light helps prevent vitamin D deficiency, making outdoorsy children less vulnerable to bone problems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health issues.
  7. Improved eyesight. Time spent outdoors can help combat increasing diagnoses of nearsightedness.
  8. Better sleep. Exposure to natural light, and lots of physical activity, help reset a child’s natural sleep rhythms.
  9. A longer life span and healthier adult life. Active kids are more likely to grow into active adults.

And the best part, all of these benefits — especially those related to health and well-being — also apply to the adults spending more time with their children outdoors.

Kids who play more outdoors have fuller and more wholesome lives. Often, when they go outdoors they transform. I love watching my older daughter’s smile grow as her senses awake to the sight of birds and butterflies, the smell of flowers and trees and the sounds of water rushing or leaves rustling. Importantly, she gets a vital break from her intense indoor, too often digitized and highly regimented lifestyle.

Here are the NWF’s top tips for helping children and families reap the benefits of spending time outdoors.

  • Explore wildlife with Ranger Rick — From colorful birds to playful squirrels, wildlife holds a special fascination for children of all ages. Taking time to learn about and explore local wildlife with the children in your life is a great way to get kids engaged with the natural world and spending time outside. The National Wildlife Federation’s outdoor ambassador Ranger Rick and his friends provide countless ideas for family outdoor adventures at rangerrick.com.
  • Commit to a green hour — Whenever possible, set aside an hour of nature play time for kids each day. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control agree an hour of free play and moderate activity daily is a prescription for lasting health. Increasing a child’s time in nature and the outdoors does not have to be a heavy burden for parents and caregivers; a quick stop at a local park on the way home from school, fishing in a local stream, or an impromptu picnic outside all count. More information is available at: nwf.org/greenhour.
  • Garden for wildlife in your backyard — Every family, whether they have a windowsill in an apartment or a yard, can take small actions that make a big impact for children and wildlife. Planting native plants and providing wildlife with food, water, shelter and places to raise their young can transform any space into a bustling wildlife destination and help kids cultivate a love of nature: nwf.org/Garden-for-Wildlife.

At a time when parenting can seem fraught with complexities, one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our children is simply opening the door and stepping outside.

Collin O’Mara is the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation and a father of two. Find him on Twitter @Collin_OMara.

Why Free Play Is the Best Summer School

The Atlantic

The more time children spend in structured, parent-guided activities, the worse their ability to work productively towards self-directed goals.

The author’s sons enjoying summertime in their younger years. Jessica Lahey
Most schools across the nation have marked the end of another academic year, and it’s time for summer. Time for kids to bolt for the schoolhouse doors for two long months of play, to explore their neighborhoods and discover the mysteries, treasures, and dramas they have to offer. This childhood idyll will hold true for some children, but for many kids, the coming of summer signals little more than a seasonal shift from one set of scheduled, adult-supervised lessons and activities to another.

Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health. The value of free play,  daydreamingrisk-taking, and independent discovery have been much in the news this year, and a new study by psychologists at the University of Colorado reveals just how important these activities are in the development of children’s executive functioning.

Executive function is a broad term for cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation, and the ability to switch between activities. It is a vital part of school preparedness and has long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other positive life outcomes such as health and wealth. The focus of this study is “self-directed executive function,” or the ability to generate personal goals and determine how to achieve them on a practical level. The power of self-direction is an underrated and invaluable skill that allows students to act productively in order to achieve their own goals.

The authors studied the schedules and play habits of 70 six-year-old children, measuring how much time each of them spent in “less structured,” spontaneous activities such as imaginative play and self-selected reading and “structured” activities organized and supervised by adults, such as lessons, sports practice, community service and homework. They found that children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function. The opposite was also true: The more time kids spent in structured activities, the worse their sense of self-directed control. It’s worth noting that when classifying activities as “less structured” or “structured,” the authors deemed all child-initiated activities as “less-structured,” while all adult-led activities were “structured.”

All of this is in keeping with the findings of Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, who studies the benefits of play in human development. In his book Free to LearnWhy Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, he elaborates on how play supports the development of executive function, and particularly self-directed control:

Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates.

When we reduce the amount of free playtime in American preschools and kindergartens, our children stand to lose more than an opportunity to play house and cops and robbers. Some elementary programs recognize the importance of play and protect its role in preschool and kindergarten. Montessori schools and Tools of the Mind curricula are designed to capitalize on the benefits of self-directed free play and student-initiated activities. Tools of the Mind programs, for example, place even more importance on developing executive function than on academic skills. In their terminology, “self-regulation” is the key to success both in school and in life:

Kindergarten teachers rank self-regulation as the most important competency for school readiness; at the same time, these teachers report that many of their students come to school with low levels of self-regulation. There is evidence that early self-regulation levels have a stronger association with school readiness than do IQ or entry-level reading or math skills, and they are closely associated with later academic achievement.

This is not news to most teachers, who, when tasked with educating increasingly crowded classrooms, hope and pray for students with well-developed executive function. The ability to self-direct can spell the difference between an independent student, who can be relied upon to get her work done while chaos reigns around her, and a dependent, aimless student, who is distracted by his classmates and must be guided from one task to the next.

Parents, if you really want to give your kid a head start on coming school year, relinquish some of that time you have earmarked for lessons or sports camp and let your children play. That’s it. Just play. Grant them time free from your ulterior motives and carefully planned educational outcomes. Let them have dominion over their imaginary kingdoms while their evil dragons, white wizards, marauding armies, and grand battles for supremacy unfurl according to their whims and wills.

What Parents Need to Know About Social Media and Anxiety

Learn to recognize the warning signs of anxiety disorder and help your kid keep social media use healthy and productive. By Caroline Knorr 
What Parents Need to Know About Social Media and Anxiety

From cyberbullying to FOMO to cruel comments, social media can be a land mine for kids. Issues we parents never had to worry about, such as an intimate photo texted to the entire school or Instagram videos of a birthday party we weren’t invited to, are now a risk for many tweens and teens. With kids’ digital well-being a concern, researchers are exploring potential links between social media and the rise in teen suicide ratestech addiction, and loss of real-life social skills. And many parents are wondering: Is social media causing my kid to have anxiety?

It’s an important question — and one that makes for compelling headlines for worried parents. While it’s too early to say with certainty (this is, after all, the first generation of “digital natives”), the reality is somewhat nuanced. Some research has observed a relationship between social media use and anxiety in kids, but it’s difficult to know if and when social media is causing anxiety or whether kids who are anxious are turning to social media as a way to soothe themselves or seek support. How kids use social media matters, too: Social comparison and feedback-seeking behaviors have been associated with depressive symptoms, which often co-occur with anxiety.

Of course, it’s common for kids to feel anxious sometimes. But there’s a big difference between occasional anxiety and an anxiety disorder that requires professional care. If your kid is overly self-conscious, has uncontrollable and unrealistic anxiety, is unable to make it go away, and avoids things, you may want to seek help. (Learn more about anxiety in kids at the Child Mind Institute.) For these kids, social media may act as a trigger for — though not the root cause of — their anxious feelings. There are also kids, who, for a variety of reasons, may be more sensitive to the anxiety-producing effects of social media. For example, kids with social anxiety disorder may prefer online interactions over face-to-face interactions. Bottom line: You may not know the impact of social media on your kid until issues surface.

Unfortunately, simply cutting off social media isn’t necessarily the answer. It’s such a huge part of many kids’ lives that not having access to social media could take a toll. In fact, being connected to friends through social media may counterbalance some of its negative effects.

Without conclusive research to back up claims that social media causes anxiety — and some evidence to show it’s beneficial — it’s up to you to keep tabs on how your kid’s doing. Though it adds an extra layer to your parenting duties, it’s a good idea to get a good sense of your kid’s online life. Ask kids to give you a tour of their social media world. As they’re showing you around, you might hear some of the positive stuff you weren’t expecting, as well as some of the problem areas your kid could use help with. Also, add social media to the “wellness checks” that you already do. For example, when you ask how they slept and what they ate, ask how they’re feeling about social media. Is it mostly positive, helpful, and supportive, or do they want to step back but aren’t sure how? Here are some more tips for keeping social media a positive for kids:

Encourage self-care. Seeing photos of a trip to the beach your friends didn’t invite you to can really sting. If your kid is super bummed or tired of digital drama, suggest they take a break from social media for a while. In fact, if they post a status update that they’re taking a break, their friends might be very accepting because they’ve had similar feelings.

Help kids put social media in perspective. People post stuff that makes their lives look perfect — not the homework struggles, or the fight they had with their dad, or the hours it took to look as good as possible for the camera. Remind kids that social media leaves the messy stuff out — and that everyone has ups and downs.

Encourage offline activities. In a world where kids could spend their days lying around looking at Instagram, it’s doubly important for them to feel as though they’re cultivating their inner lives. Prompt them to balance social media with soul-nourishing activities such as hobbies, exercise, reading, and helping others. Otherwise, what are they going to brag about on social media?

Talk about their feelings. Ask them what it feels like to look at other kids’ feeds. Is there a tipping point from when they feel OK to when they start to feel bad about their own lives? Encourage them to stop before that feeling sets in and do something good for themselves instead.

Let them know you’re there for them. You may not understand everything about your kid’s online social life. But recognizing it’s important to them makes your kid feel valued — and more likely to come to you when they encounter problems.

Get help. If you see any cause for concern, including mood swings that seem to result from social media, not taking pleasure in activities he or she used to enjoy, and having accompanying symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches, visit your kid’s pediatrician for a professional opinion.

The Child Mind Institute contributed to this article. Learn more at childmind.org.

How Too Much Screen Time Affects Kids’ Bodies And Brains

Forbes

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It’s no longer controversial to suggest that humans and their smartphones aren’t always a healthy combination. Strong research has been coming in over the last several years, suggesting that looking at screens for hours a day can have some serious health and mental health consequences. Even some of the developers of these products have admitted guilt about their creations, and confessed that they don’t even let their kids use them. A couple of recent studies highlight the connection, and an infographic below expands on it.

One new study finds that time spent on screens is linked to not-so-great shifts in brain connectivity, while reading is linked to more beneficial changes. The researchers, from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, had families rate how much time their kids spent on screens (smartphones, tablets, computers, and TV) and how much time they spent reading actual books. The children’s brains were scanned, to assess how regions involved in language were connected, and it turned out that screen time was linked to poorer connectivity in areas that govern language and cognitive control. Reading, on the other hand, was linked to better connectivity in these regions.

Another recent study found that the brain chemistry of kids who fell into the category of smartphone or Internet addiction was different from that of non-addicted kids. In particular, changes were seen in the reward circuits of the brain, in the ratio of the neurotransmitter GABA to other neurotransmitters. (Interestingly, these changes generally reversed when the teens went through cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for their addiction.) And other research has reported that cells in one of the reward areas of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, are activated when participants view Instagram pictures with more “likes,” which again suggests that social media use can tap into addiction pathways.

But what may be even more important than looking at the brain is looking at the behavior and the psychology of kids who use screens. Researcher Jean Twenge’s famous work has shown strong links between time spent on screens and depression and suicidality in teens. A recent study of hers reported that teens who spent more time on screens in the form of social media, internet, texting, and gaming thought about suicide a lot more than kids who didn’t: about 48% of those who spent five or more hours a day on their phones had thought about suicide or made plans for it, while 28% of the teens who spent only one hour per day on their phones. In fact, teens who spent more time doing sports, homework, socializing with friends in real life, and going to church had a lower risk for both depression and suicide.

“These increases in mental health issues among teens are very alarming,” said Twenge, who’s also the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us, in a statement. “Teens are telling us they are struggling, and we need to take that very seriously.”

It can be tricky to tease apart the effects of screens on mental and physical health, but researchers are doing remarkably well. Below are some more of the effects that too much screen time seems to have on the developing body and brain.

WhatIsDryEye.com

Screen time’s concerning effects on kids’ brains. Courtesy WhatIsDryEye.com

 

What to Do if You Suspect Your Teen Is ‘Juuling’

If he’s Juuling, punishing your teen won’t solve the problem. Here’s what to do instead, according to a licensed child and adolescent therapist.

By KATIE HURLEY, LCSW

<p>What to Do if You Suspect Your Teen Is 'Juuling'</p>

Vladislav Perfilev / EyeEm/Getty Images

While middle school bathrooms have long been a hot spot for bullying and other secretive behavior, there’s a new threat lurking in the restrooms of our schools and keeping parents and teachers up at night: Juuling. Teens see the vaping trend as cool, harmless fun, and the pressure to try it is intense.

The Juul device, which is popular with teens partly because of its discreet design (it resembles a flash drive), is intended as a smoking alternative for adult cigarette smokers. However, with flavors like crème brulee, fruit medley, and mango, it’s no wonder Juuling draws a young audience. Juul has the added benefit of producing a smaller plume than other e-cigarettes, making it easy for teens to exhale into their sleeves and avoid getting caught.

Each Juulpod is approximately the equivalent of one pack of cigarettes and Juul does not currently offer nicotine-free flavors. While similar products on the market do offer vape juice without the added nicotine, Juul does not.

While your child’s school wages war on vaping inside their walls, you may wonder how you can stop your kids from trying it. Given that Juulpods are good for 200 puffs, even teens with restricted access to purchasing the devices can easily share with friends who have one. And here’s the thing: Warning your kids, and threatening them with punishments if they try Juuling, won’t make this problem disappear anytime soon. Instead, it’s essential that you talk openly and honestly with your kids about Juuling and vaping. Here’s how.

1. Resist the urge to freak out.

Teens respond to the emotional cues of their parents. If you begin a conversation in an angry, anxious, or accusatory manner, your teen is likely to respond by either shutting down or blowing up. These are difficult conversations to have and it’s perfectly natural for parents to feel anxious or overwhelmed by the subject matter, particularly if this is the first you’re hearing of it.

2. Ask questions and listen to what your teen says.

Keep your questions open-ended, since the goal is to find out what your teen knows about Juuling and vaping. You might say, “I just read an article about e-cigarettes that said Juul actually contains nicotine. Why are kids your age so into it?” Or, “Are the flavors really that great?” gives her an opening to say, “I tried it and thought it was gross,” or “I tried it and I thought it was cool.” You might get an eye roll or a sarcastic laugh about your apparent lack of knowledge, but this also gives your teen the opportunity to tell you about it. Take the time to listen—really listen—and avoid asking yes or no questions.

3. Don’t pretend to have all the answers.

Instead of blurting out the latest headlines on the matter, it’s better to admit what you do and don’t know. “Honest dialogue is the best way to keep conversation about addiction open and flowing,” says Jessica Lahey, New York Times bestselling author of The Gift of Failure. Additionally, being honest with your kids encourages them to be honest with you. “Studies show that kids who are lied to by their parents are, in turn, more likely to lie to their parents,” she adds.

4. Discuss the health hazards of Juuling.

Since Juuling and vaping are so new, we don’t know much about the long-term effects of inhaling nicotine vapor, says Lahey. “However, research does show that e-cigarette, including Juuling and vaping, is correlated with future cigarette use among teens,” she says. “We also know that nicotine is a highly addictive substance.”

Empower your teen to make healthy choices by asking him to highlight the pros and cons of Juuling. While “it’s fun” and “my friends are all doing it” might seem like good reasons to start, your teen probably understands that there are some compelling reasons to stop, as well. Questions like, “How will Juuling affect your ability to keep up on the field?” or “Do your friends who use Juul complain about feeling tired a lot?” trigger your teen to consider the potential pitfalls.

5. Share your concerns with your teen.

You can’t control every move your teen makes when she’s away from home, but you can talk openly about your concerns and state clear expectations. You might say something like, “Nicotine is very addictive and I expect that you will stay away from vaping, but I also know that it’s very difficult to avoid this stuff and I am here to help you however I can.”

6. If you discover that your teen is Juuling, keep your emotions in check.

While your knee-jerk reaction might be to search her phone, shut down communication with her peers, and tear about her room in pursuit of evidence, don’t. “Remember that when it comes to prying, searching, and snooping on your kids, you can never unsee the things you find or earn back the trust that’s lost,” says Lahey. “Juuling is, in the grand scheme, not terribly dangerous in and of itself, but it can lead to other habits and addictions that can be problematic. Talk to your kids about the places Juuling can lead, and then keep talking in the spirit of love, caring, and support for your children’s health and privacy.”

 

Your teen is faced with difficult choices every single day. The good news is that the more you discuss risky behaviors and acknowledge that your teens face these obstacles, the less likely your teens are to engage in these risks. Keep talking. It works.