School counselor and EHE alumna Natalie Fei, second from right, talks about communication with girls during Worthingway Middle School's ROX group.

The most-connected generation ever is becoming disconnected

School counselors — who spend their days encouraging, advising and mediating conflict — can be excellent barometers of change in teen behavior.

So, when they say there’s been a seismic shift in the way many kids view themselves and feel about life in general, and that smartphones could be the reason, parents might want to take notice.

Natalie Fei, ’13 MA, College of Education and Human Ecology, never tells the students she counsels at Worthington’s Worthingway Middle School that she “completely understands” what they are going through.

Because she can’t. A teenager in the 2000s, Fei grew up without smartphones, without social media and without the angst the now-ubiquitous technology can generate.

“I say to them, ‘You’re right, I don’t ‘get’ the pressures you’re under to have a certain image or to have 4 billion social media likes.’ Just saying that can be huge for kids,” she said.

Even her intern, counselor education master’s student Mary Langenfeld, was a college freshman in 2012, when the number of Americans owning smartphones surpassed 50 percent.

Looking back, that’s the year that researchers — and school counselors — began to see changes in teen behavior. That’s when Gen Z, people born after 1996, started spending more time communicating electronically and interacting less in person, compared to their predecessors. And that’s when school counselors began to see a need to respond.

“Social media makes everything really hard,” said Fei. “Some days I wish I could crash the internet to give kids a break.”

Master's student Mary Langenfeld laughs with girls attending the ROX girls' empowerment group.
Master's student Mary Langenfeld laughs with girls attending the ROX girls' empowerment group.

And while 31 percent of girls say they have been made fun of on social media, the main fallout has less to do with bullying, these counselors say, than it does with self-image.

“It’s not even like someone is purposely being mean to them,” said Liz Mechling, ’09 MA, a school counselor at Columbus’ Metro Early College High School. “They are following all these people, seeing their lives, and comparing themselves to other people.”

Especially for girls, their online friends all seem prettier, happier, with better boyfriends and nicer clothes. It amounts to perpetual psychological one-upmanship.

“It’s also that social aspect of, ‘Oh, look at how many friends they are hanging out with,’” said Ashley Hansen, a school counseling master’s student and intern at Metro High. “’Look at the party they are at. Look at all the vacations they get to go on.’”

The resulting insecurity, coupled with the fact that kids are getting less time interacting face-to-face with peers, is taking an emotional toll on adolescents.

Screens replacing faces

According to research by Lisa Hinkelman, ’01 MA, ’04 PhD, most high school girls say they spend six or more hours on social media each day. About 40 percent check their social media accounts at least 10 times daily.

Hinkelman now runs Ruling Our eXperiences (ROX), a girls’ empowerment organization based in Columbus. Her 2017 Girls’ Index surveyed more than 10,000 girls nationwide on topics such as friendship, career aspirations and social media. (Several researchers consulting on the project are also EHE alumni.)

The results show that girls who spend the most time using technology say they are sad or depressed nearly every day, are less likely to trust other girls and less likely to participate in activities such as sports and theater.

School counselors say some kids prefer to interact online — sometimes with complete strangers.

“There are these subcultures that kids dig into,” Fei said. “Especially for middle school, finding a place you fit in is so critical that kids will seek that out online.”

Assistant Professor Brett Zyromski’s Current Issues course helps preservice school counselors like Hansen and Langenfeld address problems facing school-aged kids. Zyromski said other research corroborates the Girls’ Index findings.


• Encourage teens to spend time with their peers and other people. Extracurricular activity cuts down on anxiety and depression.

• Encourage kids to silence their phones and charge them outside of their room.

• Reinforce that your teens are okay, just as they are. “That would change how they present themselves to the world,” Fei said.

• Nudge adolescents to have face-to-face conversations and talk on the phone. Mechling tells students in friendship conflicts, “Talk to your friend. Don’t email them. Don’t send them a text. Go handle it now.”

• Be proactive in establishing parameters for younger children. Set limits on screen time and create no-screen zones like the dinner table. “If you start a prevention, it’s not a punishment,” Zyromski said.

• Talk to older teens about the dangers of screen time. Stick to the facts; they’re irrefutable.

• Watch for signs of anxiety and depression. Seek professional help early.

Adolescents — both boys and girls — who spend more time in front of any type of screen are more likely to have mental health issues than those who spend more time engaging in non-screen activities such as exercise, attending religious services or even reading newspapers. But face-to-face contact appears to be key.

“It seems that people are replacing their human interaction with interaction online and tending to not find happiness,” Zyromski said.

Humans have evolved in close and near-constant contact with others, experts point out. Our brains are hard-wired for human interaction.

Not only that, but because smartphones are in adolescents’ possession day and night, they are disrupting the recharging their brains could be getting from sleep.

“A really high percentage of them keep it on the pillow or next to them” at night, Zyromski said. “And so, if notifications or texts come through, they’re checking. They’re not getting good sleep. That, consequently, is leading to higher levels of anxiety — anxiety around notifications, anxiety around being connected to social media.”

Worthingway school counselor Natalie Fei makes a point about healthy communication to girls in the ROX group.
Worthingway school counselor Natalie Fei makes a point about healthy communication to girls in the ROX group.

No easy fixes

So, we’ve come full circle. The most-connected generation ever is becoming disconnected. School counselors see students who are overly tired, anxious and depressed. Many kids lack self-confidence. Mechling and others say students are unwilling to communicate in person or by phone, or are timid about it.

But school counselors are tackling the problem. The challenge, Zyromski said, is to influence kids when they’re not in school.

“How are you educating people about the impact of social media,” he said, “about how it could impact their anxiety level and depression level and self-esteem, their emotional ability to interact with the world around them?

“School counselors bringing that type of education to teachers, parents and administrators, as well as students, is probably the first step,” he said.

The ROX organization fosters a network of school groups that coach girls on healthy social media use, among other issues. Girls get much-needed facetime and hear empowering messages such as “I am not defined by others, by society or the media. My self-confidence comes from within.”

Both Hansen and Langenfeld help lead ROX groups in the schools where they intern. Similar boys’ clubs are in the making, and might address issues such as excessive gaming.

Ideally, Zyromski said, school policies will address the issues with classroom interventions and whole-school programming.

Most experts agree it’s too late to take away smartphones and other technology from older teens. They are too emotionally invested in them. Teaching them the dangers of overuse and how to self-regulate will allow them to experience the benefits of technology while avoiding the pitfalls.

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