At Camp Balcones Springs, we offer a robust and specialized teen program to our high school students, ensuring they have a camp curriculum that is specifically catered to the needs and preferences of their age group. In addition to unique activities and schedules, our staff also receives specialized training to specifically prepare them to support and counsel teenagers. We attend multiple camp conferences throughout the year overviewing the risks and challenges teenagers face – with a particular emphasis on mental health and how to detect depression and anxiety in teens.
This type of training – and summer camp programs that account for it – is appearing more and more necessary as teen mental health becomes a growing concern. In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement declaring that mental health disorders had surpassed physical conditions as the main source of impairment and limitation among adolescents. That same year, 13% of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode – a 60% increase from 2011. Suicide rates, which were relatively stable up until this point, also lept 60%. In the 1980s, public health risks for teens were mostly what we call externalized risks – binge drinking, drunk driving, teen pregnancy, early experimentation with sex, smoking, etc. Now, the most pressing risks are internalized – mental health, anxiety, depression, and mood and attention disorders are the primary things threatening young people. What happened, and how were we so unprepared for it?
Doctors theorize that the reason for this shift is two-fold. The first force to blame is an increasingly earlier puberty – the average start of menstruation for girls has gone from 14 years old in 1900 to 12 years old today, with many girls entering puberty even earlier in their elementary school years. (Boys’ puberty timelines have seen a similar change.) Although we typically link puberty to sexual development, what happens more broadly during this stage is neurological development preparing our minds for the social awareness necessary for adulthood – understanding social hierarchy, competition, and how to interact and place oneself in group environments. Before the change in puberty’s timeline, this mental development took place in conjunction with the neurological changes that teach us how to sort through social stimuli and make sense of all of the information we are taking in and suddenly more aware of. This stage of development, however, is occurring no earlier than it did 100 years ago, so today, that part of the brain doesn’t develop until several years after the onset of puberty. So, children are now developing a sudden awareness of social hierarchy without the parts of the brain that help us make sense of all of this information, creating a dangerous neurological mismatch.
This is where the second source of blame comes in – the environment. One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, there was far less around us to make sense of – we only encountered what was in our immediate surroundings, so it would take far less of a toll if we were sensitized to social information but not yet able to regulate it – there just wasn’t much to regulate. However, today with the pervasiveness of social media, all of us – but especially young people turning to the internet for comfort and escape – are faced with a cascade of hierarchical, competitive social information that, without the parts of our brain that develop in later and are necessary to regulate it. Without those functions helping young people make sense of all the information they are exposed to, the information becomes overbearing, confusing, distracting, and in some cases, destructive.
So, where does this leave us? Understanding the likely reason for the increase in mental health issues among young people is helpful if we are to attempt to mitigate and address this crisis. We must recognize that given the complexity of the world, the early onset of puberty, and the massive influx of information coming at young people, we have to do a better job providing the structure that acts as the regulatory function for the young person’s brain.
What does this look like? In a quite reductive sense – less time on social media and media in general. Of course, this is far easier said than done in today’s world. However, helping young people spend time away from their phones and screens can have dramatic benefits. The disconnected nature of summer camp – and other unplugged adventures – is one of the few environments remaining that create a screen-free world for children, one that helps regulate the amount of information they are exposed to before the part of their brain that will regulate for them catches up with their increased awareness.
Understanding the impact of screens, social media, and our increased connectivity on youth mental health reinforces our belief that camp is one of the most important experiences a young person can have. Although the friendships, skills, adventures, and challenges that have always stood as a hallmark of summer camp remain just as relevant and beneficial to a child’s development, this “regulatory escape” from an information-heavy world may in fact be dramatically life-improving for those young people who are caught in the junction of puberty and social media where worrisome mental health issues can arise. We hope that by providing specialized programming for high school campers and intentional training for our staff, we can allow summer camp to be a much-needed respite for today’s youth.