Life today may be a lot less boring than the sleepy days of the Eisenhower era, but it's also a lot more stressful. Particularly for kids. And all that stress poses potential health problems -- now and as the kids grow older.
That's the conclusion of a recent study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, that compared the anxiety levels of children and college students over four decades.
"Children's anxiety increased substantially from the 1950s," says study author Jean Twenge, who adds, "I was surprised by the magnitude of the change."
Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, drew her conclusions by analyzing more than 200 studies done on more than 50,000 young people from 1952 to 1993.
Among her findings, for example: The normal 9-to-12 year old in the 1980s had measurably higher anxiety levels than children who were under psychiatric care in the 1950s.
"It is compelling that the healthy children scored higher because you would normally expect the mean score of kids in school to be lower than the mean score of children under in-patient psychiatric care," Twenge says.
Also, she adds, "if you took an average child from the 1980s and time-traveled her back to the 1950s, she would score in the 84th percentile on anxiety compared to the average child from the 1950s, who would score at the 50th percentile."
The culprits, she notes, are the dramatically different cultural norms and mores of today.
Although genetics and personality characteristics are important in determining a person's susceptibility to anxiety, Twenge found that the huge social changes of the last four decades significantly increased the anxiety levels of young people.
Those changes include the AIDS epidemic; the big jump in the divorce rate; increased crime, including the shocking string of school shootings; and a fraying "social fabric," typified by the loss of the extended family.
"We found a specific correlation between anxiety and environmental factors," Twenge says. "When the crime rate was high in a given year, children's anxiety was also high. And the same was true for divorce.
"When you compare the 1950s to the 1990s in the United States," she adds, "basically there is a different culture."
Fifty years ago, people were more likely to know their neighbors, and less likely to move away from their hometown. They also married earlier and had more children, all of which built a sense of belonging and stability, Twenge says.
In her study, she compared the results of studies designed to gauge the anxiety levels of kids between the ages of 9 and 17, and college students. The questions included: how often the young people felt sick to their stomachs; how hard it was to concentrate; how easily their feelings were hurt, and how much they worried about past events.
Although college students had measurably higher anxiety levels as the decades passed, it was the kids who seemed most affected.
"That could be because we tend to develop levels of anxiety as children that we carry with us all our lives," Twenge says.
Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Emory University's department of psychiatry, says, "There has been a real increase [in anxiety among children] because of the decrease in predictability in people's lives."
She also blames the increase in divorce, random school violence, and the mobility of modern society that promotes a general "fearfulness of the environment."
Kaslow recently attended a fireworks display and was stunned at many of the children's reaction to the noise.
"There were a lot of children -- 3 to 8 years old -- who were really frightened, crying at the sound of the fireworks," she says. "And while some parents went over and comforted their children, some didn't."
Anxiety can be hazardous to your health, the psychologists say.
"People who have a high level of anxiety can be predisposed to depression, and a host of health problems, like asthma, gastrointestinal problems, ulcers and heart disease," Twenge says.
Other attendant problems, says Kaslow, who treats children with anxiety problems, are restlessness, irritability and even "a fearfulness to try new things, like going out for soccer."
The key to helping kids cope with their anxieties is an understanding parent who takes the time to listen and offer guidance, Twenge and Kaslow say.
"Parents are busy and often don't have the energy to calm their kids down," Kaslow says. "But no matter how busy they are and how scheduled the kids are, they have to spend time every day to help their kids problem-solve, help them get perspective [on their worries] without minimizing their fear."
"Don't say, 'Don't worry,' " she says. "It's useless. Instead, say, 'I can understand why you're worried; let's talk about what you're worried about and we can make it better.' "
Twenge recommends helping your children build a solid circle of friends and relatives.
"A child who feels accepted and has friends will have less anxiety," she says.
What To Do
For a good description of childhood anxiety, when it should be treated and how it is treated, visit Physicians Chat.org.
And the American Psychological Association also has helpful explanations of the various types of anxieties that affect children.