Brave New World?
“Connection burnout” and other modern stressors leave some kids anxious and struggling to adapt.
by Bill Donahue

Maria Kelly describes her daughter as “a 13-year-old going on 30 in Thunderdome,” a reference to the 1985 postapocalyptic action film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

“She’s growing up in a world that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” says Kelly, not her real name upon request, to save her daughter from embarrassment. “She stresses out over the weirdest things, but I can understand that, because when you’re 13, every little thing seems like the most important thing in the world. She’s also had to deal with a lot of stuff I never had to, especially not at her age.”
The teen years have always been a time when kids struggle to figure out who they are and where they fit in, but Kelly says it’s harder now. Her daughter has gotten wrapped up in the “nonstop drama” unfolding in chats and text chains on her cellphone. Add that to the traditional teenage challenges of peer pressure, bullying, and the temptation to try drugs and alcohol.
“Sometimes I feel traumatized just hearing about the things she has to deal with every day,” she admits. “But she’s the one who actually who has to live in that world.”
Faust Ruggiero suggests such experiences have become commonplace. A physiologist based in Bangor, Pennsylvania, northeast of Allentown, Ruggiero believes kids today live in a vastly different world than the one that reared their parents. He cites a phenomenon known as “connection burnout,” in which children are connected to their devices—and to each other—almost around the clock.
“When I was growing up, we were not always connected,” he says. “When the school day ended, you went home and relaxed. You could disconnect, so whatever happened at school stayed there. Now, kids are connected all the time, so anything that does happen, they’re not able to disconnect from it. It ends up taking on a life of its own.
“It’s a highly pressured way of living,” he continues. “They never get to disconnect, they don’t want to [disconnect], and they don’t know how. … If you take a cellphone away from a kid, you see them go into withdrawal, the same as any other drug. When you cannot disconnect from something that causes intense pleasure but also pain, where do you go?”
Ruggiero explores some of the issues affecting today’s youth in his forthcoming book, The Fix Your Anxiety Handbook, the second in an “empowerment” series; for his next book, he intends to tackle the issue of depression. Considering the fact that children often model the behaviors of the adults in their lives, adults’ habits and how they cope with stress can make all the difference between a happy and well-adjusted child and one who feels broken, adrift, and alone.
“When I counsel parents and families, I tell them to program at least two hours every night when kids don’t have [access to their] cellphones,” he says. “I recommend doing it closer to bedtime, so they can start easing down a bit. … By getting away from social media and cellphones, you let them experience real life. Let them connect with nature or something else that is not machine-related.”
Adults are just as prone to spending too much time on TikTok, Instagram, and various other habit-forming sites, so parents should practice what they preach.
“Everyone has to disconnect,” Ruggiero adds. “Parents need to disconnect, too. When I go to the supermarket, I leave my phone in the car. Some people say, ‘Well, what if there’s an emergency?’ Ten minutes away from your phone isn’t going to hurt anyone. I was raised in a home with one phone, and we got along just fine.”
While every human on the planet has some degree of anxiety—the “fight or flight” response is ingrained in humans’ DNA—the condition can get out of control without the proper coping mechanisms. Ruggiero says anxiety has spiked in recent years, in part due to specific changes in American culture.
“During the pandemic, people didn’t turn the TV off,” he says. “People were always watching the news, hearing the news, waiting for controversy. It’s the same with politics. You have to disconnect from the political stuff, which is designed to make us react. Are you getting worked up and filled with negative emotion? If so, maybe you should stop doing that, not get sucked into it.”
Ruggiero’s advice: Monitor your own habits and behaviors to see if something needs to change. Also, ask your children how they are feeling, and then listen closely to what they have to say. Enlist the help of a professional, if needed, either for you or your child. The stakes, he suggests, are higher than some people might expect.
“I try to educate people about what stress does to the body,” he says. “If you accelerate stress, it affects the heart and other organs, the joints and the muscles—it’s an invitation to disease. For people who have a difficult time controlling it, they also worry more, they obsess, they ruminate on the past. Your clarity becomes compromised, and spiritually, if that’s part of who you are, you can feel disconnected from yourself.”
As for Maria Kelly, she’s cautiously optimistic about her daughter. Next year, Kelly’s daughter will start attending public high school in the northwest corner of Montgomery County, not far from the border with Chester County. She hopes the combination of a new environment (and new social groups), the stimulation of new interests, and the onset of maturity will bring about a welcome change.
“Maybe that’s Pollyanna-ish of me to think,” Kelly adds. “Maybe she’s just going to have a tougher time than I did. Maybe the world is just different now, and she’s going to have to learn how to live in it.”
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, April 2023.