Anxious? Yes. When? Always.


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As a young person I was sometimes anxious: before an exam, leading up to a job interview’ or prior to a big game.

My expectations were simple: pass the exam, get the job, and maybe win the game.

Any anxiety was unpleasant, but manageable: a sleepless night or two, butterflies in the stomach and perhaps a short-lived loss of appetite.

The recommended treatments were rudimental: take a few deep breaths, get out of bed, and adopt a ‘just do it’ mindset.

From a young age, like most of my friends, I was left pretty much to my own devices when it came to dealing with the anxieties that confronted me.

Consequently, the enormity of the anxiety-inducing challenges wasn’t overblown in my mind: my parents hadn’t paid for extra tuition, and my guidance councillor didn’t focus on the imperative of achieving minimum grades (because we didn’t have guidance councillors). My social influencer role models – Mum and Dad and Uncle Kevin – at no time suggested to me that if I was going to feel okay about my life, then I needed to drive a new Lamborghini and fly my own private jet by the age of 21. Their advice was much simpler: just do your best.

In hindsight, such an uncomplicated approach to life challenges was refreshingly manageable.

Don’t change channel …this is not another boomer tirade suggesting kids nowadays need to harden up … if only it were that simple. Life for young people now is so much more complicated.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wanted the Lambo’ and the private jet – I still do – but I wasn’t constantly confronted with reels of real “successful” people making my modest accomplishments feel like pathetic failures. I wasn’t bombarded with friends’ new Insta profiles showing them looking like celebrity models (yet them swearing they hadn’t used a filter), while I looked in the mirror and saw just acne and geekiness.

No wonder so many of our kids are regularly hamstrung by anxiety nowadays. For years kids have been encouraged to be their ‘best selves’, work harder, look better, be healthier, get better jobs, better grades, be richer … few have been encouraged to just be happy.

Not by coincidence, anxiety among young people has become increasingly prevalent. Young people face immense pressure to excel academically, socially, and professionally. The weight of expectations from parents, teachers, and society can lead to heightened anxiety.

Perhaps in our roles as parents, teachers and employers we should focus less on endlessly encouraging young people to excel and be exceptional, and instead encourage them to simply always do their best without constant reference to a league table of achievement.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear two high school teachers last week applauding positive impacts they’d unexpectedly noticed from the ban on cell phones at their high schools – less disruption in class, and kids actually speaking to each other and playing in lunchbreaks. The teachers were both genuinely surprised at the positive change which they had envisaged would be far more problematic. Actual human interaction requires active participation in ways that ‘passive’ TikToks don’t. When you are learning to ‘come out of your shell’ at the age of 13, some active participation is usually a good thing.

I hope the cell phone change will have a positive long-term impact on reducing anxiety in students. If we want to feel okay about ourselves, let’s talk face-to-face and support each other, not rely solely on social media feeds to serve us a never-ending stream of unrealistic mirages.

At the one time in life when you are finding out who you are – your teenage years – how demoralising to be constantly smacked in the face by images of the you you can never hope to be.

While there are countless more factors than just social media contributing to the mental health challenges afflicting so many young people in New Zealand today, I believe one condition, social media disease, can be treated. But a warning: rehab could be a very, very long process.

Related: New year, new me

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Alan Neben
Alan Neben
Alan Neben is a Mount Maunganui local and experienced New Zealand publisher. His columns provide a light-hearted perspective on social changes effecting New Zealanders

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