Hearts Come Alive When Minds Calm

Hearts Come Alive When Minds Calm

A prescription for American's teen mental health crisis.

Recently, a coalition of the nation’s leading experts in pediatric health issued an urgent warning. In a letter penned jointly by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the three organizations declared that America’s teenage mental health crisis had become a national emergency.

Later that same month, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the highest-ranking doctor in the United States, shared these startling statistics: Between 2010 and 2019, rates of anxiety and depression among high school students had skyrocketed by more than 50 percent. The suicide rate for adolescents ages ten to nineteen had risen by 48 percent. One in three high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

Around the same time, mainstream media outlets also began reporting on America’s teen mental health crisis. Released in 2020, The Social Dilemma takes a deep dive into how Big Tech hooks users, especially teens, on its products. Using industry insiders, the documentary exposes the strategies used by social media companies to increase screen time and extract data at any cost. In one of the most quotable lines of the film, Tristan Harris, former Google design ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, summed it up this way: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

Jonathan Haidt wrote The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.

The Anxious Generation

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the NYU Stern School of Business, is a leading expert in the field. Haidt has made a career speaking truth to power backed by data in the most difficult landscapes — communities polarized by religion, campuses battling culture wars, and now, the public health emergency facing today’s high schoolers, Gen Z.

In The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, published in March, Haidit lays out one of the most cogent and persuasive arguments ever made on the subject. “Since about 2010, rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide have all risen sharply, more than doubling on many measures,” he writes. “Gen Z, children born between 1996 and 2012, are more anxious, more depressed, and more fragile than any generation in American history.”

Through his research, Haidt shows how play-based childhood began to decline in the 1980s and how it was finally wiped out by the arrival of the phone-based childhood in the early 2010s. In The Anxious Generation, he presents more than a dozen mechanisms by which the “great rewiring of childhood” has interfered with children’s social and neurological development, covering everything from sleep deprivation to attention fragmentation, addiction, loneliness, social contagion, social comparison, and perfectionism.

“In my junior year, I became overwhelmed by the stress of the future and what I wanted to do with my life,” says Anna Weaver ’24. “I thought I needed to be perfect to succeed in life. I constantly prioritized my homework over my health and relationships with others. Instead of spending time with or talking to my friends, I isolated myself. Instead of going to bed early when I needed sleep, I stayed up late working on assignments. My happiness depended solely on my performance.” Weaver still struggles with perfectionism, but she has made a lot of progress since junior year. “No one is perfect,” she says. “And I have learned that over-criticizing yourself and rushing through life will cause you to miss out on what really matters.”

Though Weaver does not directly point the finger at social media, she is a member of the first generation in history to fully grapple with its impact. Of course, social media is not the only stressor facing teens. Mass shootings, international conflicts, and the pandemic have all contributed to a world in which many children do not feel safe, even when they are.

Still, the correlation between adolescent social media use and the prevalence of anxiety and depression is striking. In one particularly fascinating section of Haidt’s book, he plots the growth of social media against the decline of teenage mental health. When Facebook first went public in 2006, he says, it was marketed as a social media network, a place to connect with friends and family. Then, in 2009, Facebook introduced the “Like” button, a new and seemingly benign feature. A short time later, Twitter responded with an innovation of its own, the “Retweet,” which allowed information to spread faster and wider than ever before.

This was exactly when teen social life moved en masse onto social media, and it correlates precisely with the gigantic spike in anxiety and depression we are now seeing in high school-aged students. “By the time 2011 rolls around, every kid is training every other kid with these tiny little reinforcement buttons,” Haidt writes. “An entire generation is hooked up, all training each other to do whatever is rewarded online. This is a major change in human development. Instead of adults teaching kids or kids working things out in small groups, it all becomes one big public performance.”

Today, the average teen spends 4.8 hours a day on social media apps like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat, according to Gallup. Among girls, that number rises to 5.3 hours. On average, a teen gets pinged 237 times a day. Pomfret students spend comparatively less time on social media, probably because the School keeps them so busy, but the numbers are still high. On a normal class day, the average Pomfret student spends two to three hours on social media, with 9 percent spending four or more hours.

Haidt thinks the wholesale shift of society onto social media has been bad for everyone. But it has been particularly bad for Gen Z, whose brains were particularly susceptible to the psychological damage of a phone-based life just when a phone-based life was becoming the norm. “Gen Z was the first generation to get social media in middle school, a time when their brains were still being wired up,” he says. “This makes their experience very different from millennials, who didn’t start using social media until college, and almost nothing like the childhood Gen X remembers.”

Head of School Tim Richards convened a task force charged with tackling the issue of social media and technology use on campus.

A Wake-up Call

In the last several years, an uptick in tragedies has shaken independent schools across the country. In the aftermath, many boarding schools, including Pomfret, have turned to a new tool designed to assess teenage mental health within their own schools. The Independent School Health Check (ISHC) is administered by Indiana University Center for Survey Research in partnership with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).

The ISHC collects information about students’ attitudes and life experiences, touching on many aspects of student wellbeing, including nutrition, exercise, sleep, self-esteem, stress, integrity, sexual behavior, and substance use. Student participation is voluntary and anonymous. In the spring of 2023, Associate Head of School Don Gibbs invited all 350 of Pomfret’s students to take the survey. More than 95 percent accepted. A few weeks later, NAIS sent back the group findings. “The results were sobering,” Gibbs says. “The same things we were seeing nationally were manifesting themselves locally at Pomfret.”

According to ISHC data, 25 percent of Pomfret students reported “being diagnosed by a professional with anxiety.” Nearly 38 percent reported feeling depressed — defined as “feeling so sad and hopeless that you stopped doing your usual activities” — within the last year.

Not long after the ISHC data was released, Head of School Tim Richards convened a task force charged with tackling the issue of social media and technology use on campus. The group was one of five student life task forces charged with combining data and student input to inform policy and best practices in a given area of concern.

After six months, the Social Media and Technology Task Force, chaired by Science Teacher Stephen VanHoesen, submitted its final report. Rather than recommending a ban on cell phones, the task force issued guidance limiting the use of technology during meals in the dining hall and arguing for the prohibition of cell phone use in Chapel. The group also recommended keeping tabs on when and how technology is being deployed in classroom spaces. Lastly, the task force strongly recommended partnering with an outside firm, The Social Institute, to implement a “healthy habits” curriculum for freshmen and sophomores. “I am very pleased that Pomfret has decided to move in this direction,” says Richards. “It’s critical that our students learn how to harness the power of social media while also being fully aware of the dangers of living too much of your life on a screen.” Gibbs believes the key to Pomfret’s long-term success is to include more students more consistently in the design and implementation of the School’s wellbeing initiatives. “Our students need to be co-leaders in this work,” he says. “I am glad Pomfret has the courage to ask these questions, and I am proud that our students have the courage to answer them.”

Erin Fisher leads the Wellbeing Department.

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Last year, 125 students (35 percent of the student body) visited Pomfret’s Counseling Office for three or more sessions, an increase of 4 percent over the previous year and 11 percent since 2020. “I am the first licensed clinician that Pomfret School has had,” says Director of Counseling Fannie Deary, though she is careful to note she has built on the exceptional work of her predecessors, former counseling director Caroline Wagner and former counselor Cooper Hastings ’01. “In my first year, we had one-and-a-half counselors. In my fourth year, we moved to two counselors. Now, in my sixth year, we have three full-time counselors.”

Today, the office offers crisis, short-term, and ongoing weekly and bi-weekly sessions for students suffering from anxiety, depression, OCD, ASD, suicidal ideation, self-harm, family conflict, social stressors, disordered eating, and perfectionism. Appointments are made at the request of the student or at the suggestion of the advisor. Students also have access to a private room in the Health and Wellness Center where they can engage in telehealth appointments. If a student needs more support, the School typically recommends seeing an outside provider.

Deary believes the increase in demand is due to the availability and normalization of therapy in society and the visibility of the Counseling Office on campus. The need has always been there, she argues. But the rise of students’ engagement in the therapeutic process is due to social-emotional curricula introduced over the past decade. “Educational institutions have been engaging students at early ages to learn about emotion identification and language to express their emotions, so when they feel and identify shifts in their regulation, they know where to go to gain the support they need.”

One of the places students can go is the Wellbeing Department. “Adolescents are experiencing a great deal of angst right now,” says Director of Wellbeing Erin Fisher. “They look at social media and think this is reality. When in truth, so much of what they are seeing has been curated and filtered. So when they look at their own life it doesn’t measure up. Our work is to make sure our students have the tools they need to see through the illusion.”

Today, Fisher — a social worker by training with degrees from Cornell and Columbia — and her colleagues present at national conferences, including an upcoming presentation at the Association of Independent Schools in New England Health and Wellness Conference.

But back in 2020, Pomfret was still nibbling around the edges. “I remember sitting at home during Covid with my husband, Bobby, who was the head of the Religion Department at the time, and we started talking about the need for a more comprehensive approach to support student wellbeing.” Eventually, the Fishers hit on the idea of creating an academic department devoted to the mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing of its students. Soon after, they brought the idea to Head of School Tim Richards, who agreed immediately. The next year, the Wellbeing Department was born.

The Fisher and students at the Association of Independent Schools in New England Health and Wellness Conference.

At most schools, wellbeing programs are relegated to the co-curricular or extracurricular part of the coursebook. But at Pomfret they are considered full curricular offerings tied to academic credit and required for graduation. Using the six foundational dimensions of wellbeing as a framework, the catalog of standalone and cross-listed courses offered through the Wellbeing Department continues to grow. Popular classes include Foundations of Wellbeing; Mindfulness: Intro to Meditative Practice; Becoming Kinder: The Science of Generosity and Gratitude; and the Biomechanics of Yoga. “Foundations is a graduation requirement,” Fisher says. Students can take it any year, but sophomore year is really the sweet spot. The sophomore class doubles in size, and sophomores are more developmentally ready for this kind of information.

“When I first came to Pomfret, my anxiety was at its peak,” says senior Carolina Volcker. “But there is something about this place, something about its environment and its people, that helped mold and change me. Now, whenever I jump into something new, even if my hands still shake and my voice still quivers, I know I am well on my way to conquering my fear.”

Through healthy practices like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, sleep hygiene, exercise, healthy eating, and authentic friendships, Fisher believes students like Volcker can learn to live healthier, more fulfilling lives. “Self-awareness is one of the most important lessons you can teach an adolescent,” Fisher says. “Without self-awareness, it’s impossible to process what you are feeling and why.”

This story first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Pomfret Magazine.

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