Interpreting Youth Needs by Comparing Local, County, and State Data
Today’s young people appear content, tolerant, and compliant yet are depressed, anxious, and afraid. Whatever happened to adolescent angst reflected in its rebellion against cultural norms? Adolescents are anticipated to question conventions and chart their unique path in pursuit of solutions to life's various mysteries. Things have changed. Youth development has been relatively constant for decades. Teens played sports, hid in the shadows, and hung out with friends acting immature while experimenting with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. These were problematic but at least we thought we knew the culprits and how to address them. The expectation that teenagers will be able to cope with the drama of adolescence, has been replaced by alarm. A once invincible sophomoric adolescent attitude has succumbed to hyper-anxiety. Overwhelming evidence postulates the problem but how to deal with it remains uncertain. Medication provides some relief but does nothing to get to the root cause of the dilemma.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS)
The local school did not participate in the YRBS in 2021, but County schools and many State high schools completed the survey in 2021. I have used the 2021 YRBS results from the County compared with the State data along with my face-to-face interviews and anonymous surveys from local teens to frame and evaluate our local adolescent depression and anxiety crisis. I am now better equipped to learn how social media contagion may affect adolescent mental health.
In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic, our high school student anxiety levels were at 48 percent while the County-wide numbers reached 50 percent. This is an increase from 39.9 percent of students in 2017. Thirty-five percent of local high school students became “so sad or hopeless in the prior six months of the survey that they stopped their usual weekly activities.” In 2019, more than three in ten students could not carry out regular weekly activities due to debilitating anxiety or depression. Since 2020, young people have been forced to manage mental health struggles alongside the Covid-19 pandemic.
Covid-19 may have provided a respite. Surprisingly, the worldwide health crisis only slightly raised anxiety levels among students. The County average levels of anxiety increased by one percent among females and did not increase among males. During my one-on-one interviews, all female teens and half of the male teens indicated their level of anxiety was highest during school sessions and decreased during the Summer break.
The Covid-19 pandemic did not significantly change anxiety levels among students. While sharing the results of my interviews and surveys from youth with my Interview Support Group, they agreed that anxiety levels among their high school-aged children were calmed during the pandemic. Parental anxiety may have increased but for students, there was a break. Being home was more comfortable for students. Ten of the eleven teens I interviewed preferred to be home during the pandemic rather than at school. They admitted online learning posed challenges but their peace of mind was reward enough.
County students were evaluated by the criterion of whether they had experienced significant problems with anxiety during the 12 months leading up to the survey. For comparison, the 2021 County average was 51 percent and the 2021 State average was 52 percent. Females scored much higher than males for anxiety increases between 2019 and 2021 in the County.
Pre-Pandemic vs. Pandemic Teenage Anxiety Comparison
Another surprise discovery was learning that suicide planning and attempts decreased during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the County YRBS, students who made a suicide plan in the past 12 months declined by one percent. Female suicide plans or attempts remained steady while male suicide numbers decreased.
Females are at a greater risk for anxiety and depression that lead to suicidal tendencies. This is especially true among teenagers who identify with a nonbinary sexual orientation. Among students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual, non-binary, and pansexual (LGBTQ+), there is a greater feeling of anxiety than their binary-identifying peers. Among LBGTQ+ teenagers, 74 percent who identify as female suffer from anxiety compared to 31 percent who identify as male. Fifty-nine percent of those who identified as female felt so hopeless that they stopped their usual activities within the 12 months before the survey.
Additional detrimental teen mental health signifiers include cyber-bullying and intimidation at school, fear of violence, transient lifestyles, the experience of hunger, insufficient sleep, lack of emotional support, and social media contagion. Social media contagion appears to envelope many of these signifiers. Late-night screen use affected 59 percent of high school seniors while the underclass students averaged 56 percent of County high school students in 2021. My interviews with students revealed that all 22 of them are on a device after midnight on school nights.
More than one in two students is on an electronic device between midnight and 5:00 a.m. on school nights. Ruthann Richter notes in the Stanford Medical News Center, that among teens, sleep deprivation is epidemic. She states that “teen sleep deprivation increases the likelihood that teens will suffer myriad negative consequences, including an inability to concentrate…anxiety and depression, thoughts of suicide, and suicidal attempts.” Social contagion must be viewed from several angles since it does more than overload one with stimulation, it also deprives the mind and body of rest.
 McCoy, Katherine and Carl Frederick. 2019. “Rock County 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results (High School Version)”. Madison: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (page 25), https://dpi.wi.gov/sspw/yrbs/online
 McCoy, Katherine, “2019 Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Summary Report. Madison: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2019,” https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/sspw/pdf/YRBS_2019 Summary Report DPI Web Version.pdf., (page 8).
 Edgerton High School 2019 YRBS Results pdf., 4.
 Owen Tortora, McCoy, Katherine, and Frederick, Carl. 2021 “Rock County 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results (High School Version)”. Madison: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (Page 24). https://dpi.wi.gov/sped/2021-youth-risk-behavior-survey-yrbs-statewide-sample-data-available (Accessed December 20, 2022).
 Owen Tortora, McCoy, Katherine, and Frederick, Carl. 2021 “Rock County 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results (High School Version)”. Madison: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.,(Page 24). https://dpi.wi.gov/sped/2021-youth-risk-behavior-survey-yrbs-statewide-sample-data-available (Accessed December 20, 2022).
 Owen Tortora Research and Evaluation Consultant Student Services, Prevention and Wellness Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (Page 3) file:///C:/Users/info/Downloads/anxiety%20by%20gender%20race%20grade.pdf (Accessed December 20, 2022).
 Katherine McCoy and Carl Frederick. 2019. “Rock County 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results, (Pages 28-29) https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/sspw/pdf/YRBS_2019_Summary_Report_DPI_Web_Version.pdf (accessed 12/10/22).
 Owen Tortora, McCoy, Katherine, and Frederick, Carl. 2021 “Rock County 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results (Page 27) ). https://dpi.wi.gov/sped/2021-youth-risk-behavior-survey-yrbs-statewide-sample-data-available (Accessed December 20, 2022).
 Edgerton High School 2019 YRBS Results pdf., 17.
 Tortora Owen, McCoy, Katherine, and Frederick, Carl. 2021 “Rock County 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results, (Page 25) ). https://dpi.wi.gov/sped/2021-youth-risk-behavior-survey-yrbs-statewide-sample-data-available (Accessed December 20, 2022).
 Ibid., 10-77. (Accessed December 20, 2022).
 Ruthann Richter, “Among Teens, Sleep Deprivation an Epidemic, in Stanford Medical News Center (October 8, 2015), https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2015/10/among-teens-sleep-deprivation-an-epidemic.html (accessed 10/4/22); See also Abi-Jaoude E, Naylor KT, Pignatiello A. “Smartphones, social media use and youth mental health.” CMAJ. 2020 Feb 10;192(6):E136-E141. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.190434. PMID: 32041697; PMCID: PMC7012622. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7012622/ (accessed 10/4/22). Abi-Jaoude, writes that “high proportions of youth engage in heavy smartphone use and media multitasking, with resultant chronic sleep deprivation.”
 Jason E. Goldstick, Ph.D., Rebecca M. Cunningham, M.D., Patrick M. Carter, M.D., “Current Causes of Death in Children and Adolescents in the United States” in The New England Journal of Medicine, May 19, 2022. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc2201761. (accessed on 10/3/2022).
 The Center for Disease Control lists suicide as the number two leading cause of death for people in three separate age groups (10-14; 15-24; 25-34) https://webappa.cdc.gov/cgi-bin/broker.exe (accessed 10/4/22).
 Centers for Disease Control, “Transportation Safety” Get the Facts 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/transportationsafety/teen_drivers/teendrivers_factsheet.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fmotorvehiclesafety%2Fteen_drivers%2Fteendrivers_factsheet.html (accessed on 10/4/2022).
 Jason E. Goldstick, Ph.D., Rebecca M. Cunningham, M.D., Patrick M. Carter, M.D., “Current Causes of Death in Children and Adolescents in the United States (accessed 10/3/2022).
 Julie Beck, “The Decline of the Driver's License,” in the Atlantic. Beck notes: “It’s especially pronounced for the teens—in 2014, just 24.5 percent of 16-year-olds had a license, a 47-percent decrease from 1983, when 46.2 percent had a license. And at the tail end of the teen years, 69 percent of 19-year-olds had licenses in 2014, compared to 87.3 percent in 1983, a 21-percent decrease.” https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/01/the-decline-of-the-drivers-license/425169/?utm_source=copy-link&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=share (accessed 10/3/2022).
 Centers for Disease Control, “Positive Trends Summary,” Https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/sspw/pdf/YRBS_2019_Summary_Report_DPI_Web_Version.pdf, 22. (Accessed 10/4/2022).
 Center for Disease Control’s annual Report Preliminary Edgerton - Edgerton High 2019 YRBS Results (High School Version) file:///C:/Users/info/OneDrive%20%20Northern%20Seminary/Documents/Edgerton_High_survey%202019.pdf; see also Monica Anderson and Jingjing Jiang, “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018”, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/ (accessed 12/13/2022).