Teens Are Feeling Climate Anxiety - The Years Project

Teens Are Feeling Climate Anxiety

By FXB Climate Advocates

By Willa Karr

At six in the morning, I’m up. Like most days, what wakes me is not an alarm clock but a chiming flood of notifications through my phone. Whether it be texts from friends, teachers’ emails, Twitter threads, snapchats, or recent news articles, my head is loaded with information before I can get up to brush my teeth. The rest of the world is awake, and now I have to be too. While I get ready for school, I browse through the thoughts of millions of people online. What’s pervading these peoples minds (and consequently my own) these days, is the fate of our world. It seems that not a moment goes by when I’m not reminded of the decaying planet we are left with. While I’m armed with an abundance of information at my fingertips, I can’t help but feel powerless and a little bit alone. With social media to wake me up each morning, there’s no way to escape the reality of what our planet is facing. I routinely pace around my bedroom, phone in hand, confronted with too many problems and very few solutions, while my parents are able to sit on the other side of my door, blissfully unaware. At just 15, I realized that the world as I know it may not be around as long as I will.  My parents never had this problem.

Eco anxiety or “the chronic fear of environmental doom” is most prevalent in today’s teenagers. According to a 2019 study, 57 percent of American kids feel terrified when it comes to climate change, a higher rate than among adults. There’s an explanation for why. This generation of young people was born into a world that, environmentally, was already in disrepair. Our livelihoods depend on the future of our planet, yet we have been handed down very few resources, instruction, or support to help us face this ensuing crisis. Therefore, we are most at risk from the potentially devastating effects of climate change, but we hold no real positions of power to solve the problem. This knowledge of an incoming environmental crisis without the access to tools that may help combat it produces anxiety.

Social media, at the very least,  has become an outlet for younger kids to express their frustrations and connect with others who feel the same. But, in some ways, it could also be amplifying our own anxieties. These days, social media runs most everything, so it’s imperative for us to interface with it at a young age. But, when you’re new to these platforms, it can all be very overwhelming.  At a click of a button, users  have access to a large amount of resources concerning a span of new and sometimes unfamiliar topics. You can discover and read a news report through Instagram while simultaneously scrolling through people’s opinions about that same article on Twitter. Even when you’re through with reading, you are redirected to dozen new links relating to similar issues. It can feel like a never-ending cycle. Consequently, kids these days are exposed to so much more. With social media by my side, I feel that I’ve grown up faster than expected. At the very least, faster than my parents ever had to. Yet, as a young person, it’s physically harder for me to process this excess of information I am receiving on a daily basis.

Before the age of 25, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls much of our behavior and emotion, is not fully developed. This means that the physiological threshold of a younger person is less than of an older person. Teenagers and young adults, therefore, connect more emotionally to things and tend to “think with their feelings” rather than thinking methodically when approached with a problem. This means we are particularly vulnerable to environmental stressors. When faced with the looming issue of climate change, an issue that is bound to directly affect our lives, it’s hard for younger people not to become overwhelmed with negative emotions; our brains physically cannot detach from the problem and process it in a more logical way. In other words, climate changes are developing faster than the adolescent brain can handle.

Ultimately, the access and stress of social media combined with an underdeveloped brain, leaves kids these days extremely vulnerable to mental health problems when pressed with an issue like climate change. Older people like our parents have had decades to develop the mental capacity to deal with topics of mortality and disaster, but younger people are not yet built to cope with the environmental crisis they are facing. Nevertheless, we have been thrust into this situation, and it has taken its toll on us. Anxiety and  mood disorders are more and more common in this younger generation, with 25 percent of today’s youth meeting the criteria for these disorders.

So, what can we do to fix this? Although we may never have a definite answer, the solution is not to get rid of social media altogether. It may be contributing to our own anxiety, but it is not the source of it. The climate crisis is. If we set out to combat climate change, we will ultimately be combating climate anxiety too. In this sense, social media is the most useful tool that kids have in their power these days. Like any tool it can be used to benefit the situation or exacerbate it. Social media helps us rally together, plan protests, provide support to struggling friends, and share resources, but it can also raise alarm and spread disinformation. Just look up “eco-anxiety” on Google. You run into the article “Overwhelming and Terrifying; The Rise of Climate Anxiety” along with other more useful links to forums on mental health and to pages that help address symptoms of eco-anxiety you may be experiencing. With this Google search, you might encounter something helpful or you might get something that makes you feel far worse about the future. Your experience with the topic all depends on what you decide to click on.

Realistically, we can no longer reverse the effect climate change has had on our planet and on our people. But, one thing we can do is no longer turn a blind eye to the issue. We can accept that the situation we are facing is a reality, and instead of placing the blame on other people or things, we can strive towards a solution. Even though the reason why kids are at the forefront of the climate movement may be because of  anxiety, we are here nonetheless and together in numbers, anxious to make a change. And with social media at our fingertips, we may have a lot more power than we initially believed. Because a 15-year-old me, stressed out and pacing  my room, can reach back for her phone, and connect to thousands of other stressed out kids and an even greater number of reliable resources that make her feel heard and better prepared to face her future.