Mental health professionals are going viral on the app, captivating an anxious generation.
If you want to make positive changes in your life, try building on a lesson many of us learned in 2020: Hold yourself accountable.
The notion of accountability — to yourself and to others — has been an important part of pandemic living. To avoid spreading the virus, we’ve needed to be accountable for wearing a mask, limiting our contacts and keeping our distance.
But accountability can also help you achieve your health goals. Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before,” a book about forming healthy habits, says that accountability is an important tool for making and breaking habits.
Accountability works best when it comes from the outside. You can create accountability by checking in with a friend every day to talk about healthful eating. You’re more likely to exercise if you’ve made a plan to walk with a friend or scheduled a workout with a personal trainer. You can create public accountability by declaring your intention on social media.
If you prefer to stay accountable only to yourself, you can create accountability by using an app that sends you daily reminders or by wearing a Fitbit or smart watch to track your exercise habits. You can even hold yourself accountable through a daily journal entry.
“We do better when someone’s watching,” Ms. Rubin said. “Even when we’re the ones doing the watching!”
A 2018 North Carolina State University study of 704 people enrolled in a 15-week online weight-loss program found that participants with buddies lost more weight and waist inches than those who took the course without buddy support.
So for today’s Well challenge, think about a health goal you want to achieve and focus on how you can hold yourself accountable. I’ve included a few suggestions for how to do it. Sign up for the Well newsletter to get the 7-Day Well Challenge in your inbox.
Create an Accountability Plan
What is your goal for 2021? Do you want to improve your eating habits, lose weight or exercise more? Or maybe you just want to finish that screenplay you’ve been working on? You’re more likely to succeed if you get some help.
Find an accountability buddy. Choose a friend who wants to achieve a similar goal and make a plan. Accountability might mean meeting each other once or twice a week for a walking date. Or it could be a daily text check-in to see how you’re doing on a diet or a Zoom call to work on a decluttering project together.
“Some people are very accountable to themselves, but not most people,” said Dr. Tim Church, a well-known exercise and obesity expert and chief medical officer for Naturally Slim, an app-based behavioral health program in Dallas. “In my years of working with thousands of people, there’s one thing that drives accountability more than anything else: If you want to keep people doing a behavior, get a buddy.”
While the presence of an accountability buddy adds some gentle peer pressure, the key is to focus on the behavior, not success or failure. For instance, if a person is trying to lose weight, don’t focus on the scale. Instead, check in and remind them to log what they ate, encourage them to eat more fruits and vegetables and remind them of the benefits of a regular weigh-in (but you don’t need to ask them the result). If they’re beating themselves up for eating two desserts, talk about what might have triggered an emotional eating binge.
“An accountability partner is there to support you, to problem-solve and to celebrate even the small victories,” Dr. Church said. “Judgment is the quickest way to destroy all that. People are so hard on themselves. You don’t need to be hard on them.”
Use an app. An app is a great way to add accountability to your day. Meditation apps like Headspace and Calm will send daily reminders and track your progress. The weight-loss app Noom asks you to check in for a few minutes each day, complete mini-health courses and track what you’ve eaten. The Fitbit app counts your steps, will sync with your smart scale and vibrates to remind you to get up and move.
Set reminders. Once you set a health goal, hold yourself accountable by creating calendar reminders to help you achieve it. Schedule walk breaks or daily or weekly check-ins with your accountability buddy.
Declare it on social media. Telling your friends on social media that you’re cutting back on packaged foods, or sending a tweet every time you finish a class on your exercise bike creates virtual accountability. Commit to posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or another platform every time you complete a goal, or share your feelings on days you’re struggling. When you declare your goals on social media, you’re likely to find a like-minded friend who will want to join your journey and offer words of support.
Like many of us, I stood speechless yesterday as I watched rioters storm the nation’s Capitol. My daughters, ages 10 and 17, watched alongside me and were shocked, too. Feeling rattled and helpless, I wanted someone to look after me much more than I wanted to do any parenting myself.
As a psychologist, I’m used to staying levelheaded in chaotic situations. Last night was different; I was pretty much useless. I left my girls in the care of my calm and capable spouse, and spent the evening on the phone and then Twitter seeking assurance that order would be restored. I wanted the sense that there was, or would soon be, a grown-up in the room.
Today, I remembered: I am a grown-up in the room, at least around here. And focusing on that sphere is making it possible for me to join my husband in being the parent my daughters need and deserve.
I don’t need to be responsible for fixing everything; helping my girls process their sense that everything seems broken is enough. Over breakfast, I asked my 10-year-old what she was thinking about yesterday’s events and reassured her that, even though things got out of control, calmer heads have prevailed and I now feel hopeful that things might be moving in the right direction.
Being the grown-up in the room means making space for my girls’ confusion and their questions. Tonight, I will ask both of them what they heard from their teachers and classmates at school, what they wonder, what they think. I know that I won’t have all the answers to their questions, so I’ll just be honest about what I do and don’t know and everything I am still struggling to understand.
It means I have apologized for checking out last night. Had I alarmed them by reacting to yesterday’s chaos strongly or loudly, I would have apologized for that as well.
Being a grown-up means setting aside my misguided belief that compulsively checking social media or broadcast news reports will help me feel better. I have reminded myself that doing so only unsettles me and pulls me away from what I want to be present for: my kids, my spouse, my own work, myself.
It means that I need to be mindful of what media my daughters are taking in as events continue to unfold. My younger daughter gets most of her news from us or with us. We can and will limit her exposure to graphic images and frightening information. If there is something upsetting she needs to know, we should be the ones to tell her so that we can choose the right moment, share the news in age-appropriate language and be prepared to address her reaction.
My older daughter gets her news from us, with us, and also from a vast, complex and largely opaque-to-adults adolescent discourse that unfolds over social media. With her, we will do more listening than talking, seeking to make sure that she’s a critical consumer of what she’s taking in, that she’s working with facts and that she’s thinking for herself.
Yesterday, we watched TV news together as a family, pausing at one point to ask my younger daughter if the reports felt like too much. She insisted that they weren’t, and that she wanted to see what was happening. We deferred to what she knows about herself, and what we know about her and continued to watch together until we switched the television off to have dinner.
Trying to be an up-to-the-job parent as historical events unfold can leave us feeling doubly overwhelmed. Our own sense of, “Oh my God, what is happening?” quickly gives way to other worrisome questions: “How can I possibly explain all of this and fix it for my kids?”
Well, we can’t — at least not today. But to be good parents, we don’t need to. We just have to remind ourselves of the territory we control right now and be the grown-ups there.
For parents who did not expect their children to have devices or use social media so young, virtual learning was an unexpected push into the digital deep end.
When pandemic-weary adolescents get to take a break, what should they do with themselves? The main aim, of course, should be to feel better after the break than before it. But different downtime choices lead to different kinds of relief. Adolescents (and adults) might want to reflect on the options for how they spend their free time — whether they’ve got 20 spare minutes today or can anticipate more unscheduled time in the weeks ahead.
Here’s a look at three ways teenagers tend to spend their downtime, and the particular benefits and challenges that come with each.
Connecting With the World Digitally
Young people often use their downtime to text with friends or check their social media accounts — and with good reason. Particularly under the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, teenagers rely on these platforms to connect with peers and to keep up with headlines. Spending time online might deliver the boost of an amusing exchange with a friend, a clever meme or good news about a favorite sports team. If it does, that makes for a restorative break.
But, of course, it can go another way.
Checking in on social media or the 24-hour news cycle is the psychological equivalent of sidling up to a slot machine. Hitting the jackpot — receiving digital love from a friend or finding an encouraging update about a vaccine — feels good. Pulling the lever and losing — whether that’s your messages being “left on read,” meaning the recipient doesn’t respond, or catching a depressing headline — is pretty much bound to happen from time to time.
For teenagers, especially in the context of the pandemic, turning to social media as a way to recharge can be a high-stakes gamble. Jill Walsh, a Boston University sociologist who studies technology use among adolescents, finds that having fewer in-person interactions has left many teenagers feeling “incredibly uncertain about their friendships.” Previously tolerable ambiguity in communications can now be highly distressing. Dr. Walsh notes that “getting a text that simply reads ‘k,’” — shorthand for OK that can be read as friendly, curt or angry — “can create a huge amount of emotional labor as a kid tries to figure out what it means.”
Before defaulting to downtime scrolling, teens might weigh the possibility of seeing a mood-lifting post against the chance that they’ll run into something distressing. A well-spent break should help to ease the mind; it shouldn’t open new tabs to worry over in our mental browsers.
Getting Lost in Distractions
There’s a lot to be said for taking occasional, all-consuming mental vacations, especially during a pandemic. Research on chronic stress shows that engrossing, happy distractions, such as competing in a sport or losing oneself in a movie or a book, can help young people weather persistently difficult circumstances.
Happy distractions may be a particularly apt choice when teenagers find themselves dogged by worries about school, peers, rising Covid-19 rates or anything else. Peggy Zoccola, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio University who studies the impact of stress and coping on the body, has found that ruminating over unpleasant events raises blood pressure and heart rate and triggers the ongoing release of stress hormones. Distraction, however, stops or attenuates the biological stress response. “It’s important,” she says, “to be able to recover and not always be pumping out these stress hormones.”
In fact, transporting diversions can be useful in two ways at once. According to Dr. Zoccola, they both draw our minds away from negative events that can trigger our biological stress response and at the same time pull them toward positive experiences that may prompt the release of natural mood-improving substances in the body that work much like opioids to help us feel better.
That said, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. While pleasant distractions provide valuable mental and physiological breaks from stressful conditions, “my hesitation with recommending distraction,” Dr. Zoccola said, “is that while it can get people out of the moment, if it goes on too long, that might prevent folks from addressing an issue, or might create a new one.” Teenagers can run an easy check for themselves by asking, “Are my distractions getting in the way of what I need to do?”
Creating Space for the Mind to Wander
As a third option, young people sometimes use openings in their schedule for pursuits that are engaging, but only to a degree. Researchers use the term “soft fascination” in connection with activities that require attention but don’t entirely occupy the mind, such as spending time in nature or taking a long shower. More absorbing endeavors, such as playing a video game or solving a puzzle, recruit what’s known as “hard fascination.”
Compared to hard fascination, soft fascination uses less mental bandwidth and leaves more room for the mind to wander and reflect. Avik Basu, an environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan who researches soft fascination, explains that activities that “don’t swamp the mind” are more likely to be restorative because “a softly fascinating environment allows for reflection — and that’s when the problem-solving part of our brains can really get to work.”
In other words, soft fascination relieves stress by helping us close those mental browser tabs; unhurried reflection lets us sift through mental clutter, quiet internal noise and come up with fresh, useful solutions. According to Dr. Basu, “the ‘aha’ moments you have in your shower — that’s the problem-solving mechanism of the mind working. The answer just bubbles up!”
Unfortunately, for many young people, the pandemic has swept away previously routine occasions for soft fascination. Indeed, many of us have come to appreciate how much mental housekeeping we used to do as we made our daily commute or walked along a familiar route to work or school. Teenagers might now have to go out of their way to seek low-key activities when their minds feel cluttered. And they may need adults’ encouragement to do so, because simply going for a stroll or looking out a window can seem boring compared to the allure of online catching up or consuming distractions.
When it comes to self-restoration, we all have options — with connection, distraction and reflection being chief among them. Caring for our mental and emotional health matters now even more than usual, so it’s essential for people of all ages to take the breaks that best address the needs of the moment.
As any parent overseeing homeschool knows: Zoom P.E. is hardly a hard-driving Peloton class. It’s more like your kid lying on the floor of the living room doing halfhearted leg-lifts by the light of her laptop.
Many students, particularly tweens and teens, are not moving their bodies as much as they are supposed to be — during a pandemic or otherwise. (60 minutes per day for ages 6 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) A March 2020 report in The Lancet offers scientific evidence as to why your kids won’t get off the couch: As children move through adolescence, they indeed become more sedentary, which is associated with greater risk of depression by the age of 18. Being physically active is important for their physical health as well as mental health.
Yet with many organized team sports on hiatus and athletic fields, playgrounds and climbing gyms closed or restricted to smaller groups during shorter hours, what’s an increasingly lazy child to do? More accurately: What’s a mother or father of an increasingly lazy child to do?
Many parents are taking charge, finding informal and creative ways to entice their isolated tweens and teens off their screens and outside — with others, safely. To get your own younger ones moving, here are a few ideas from families around the country, all almost-guaranteed hits, even with winter coming.
A SENSE OF CAMARADERIE
Start a small running club.
In San Francisco, under rain, fog or blue skies (or even the infamous orange one), a group of sixth graders have been gathering in Golden Gate Park two times a week to run two miles. Their unofficial motto: “Safe Distance, Minimal Distance.” Masks are required and photo breaks are frequent, as is post-run ice cream. Started on a whim by local parents in late-August, the club has been such a hit, attracting anywhere from six to 20 kids each run, that some occasionally call for a third afternoon per week, even a 7 a.m. before-school meet-up (in which case they serve doughnuts). But treats are not the ultimate draw.
“I like the experience of being with my peers and actually doing something, all at the same time,” 11-year-old Henry Gersick said. “Instead of just sitting there.”
IT’S COOL ON TIKTOK
Jump! Jump! Jump!
One of the most accessible, inexpensive, socially distanced sports is something you may not even realize is a sport. Since the pandemic began, jump-roping has become “a TikTok craze,” according to Nick Woodard, a 14-time world-champion jump-roper and founder of Learnin’ the Ropes, a program designed to teach kids and adults the joy of jumping. “All you need is time, some space and a $5 jump rope, and you’re good to go,” Mr. Woodard said.
Based in Bowling Green, Ky., Mr. Woodard and his wife, Kaylee (a six-time world champion in her own right), have been leading virtual workshops for children as young as 6, from Malaysia to Germany. A 30-minute class costs $35 for one child, and includes spiderwalk warmups, instruction, and challenges. (How many jumps can you do in 30 seconds?)
“They have so much fun, they don’t even realize they’re getting exercise,” Ms. Woodard said. But a selling point right now is that jumping rope — unlike team sports — is something you can do together, apart.
A DOSE OF ADVENTURE
Take a hike with family and a friend.
“My kids are reluctant to do anything outdoors, unless we’re meeting up with another family, then they’re totally into it!” said Ginny Yurich, founder of 1000 Hours Outside, a family-run Instagram account with over 112,000 followers that challenges youth to spend an average of 2.7 hours a day outdoors per year. “Make sure you have food, a first-aid kit and friends — friends are the linchpin,” she said. (Masks, too.)
Ms. Yurich, a Michigan mother of five, drags her children on day hikes, yes, but also on evening lantern-lit hikes, rainy hikes and snowy walks. She was inspired, she said, by the 2017 book “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather,” by the Swedish-American author-blogger Linda McGurk, who espouses the Scandinavian concept of friluftsliv, or “open-air living.” For Ms. Yurich and Ms. McGurk, experiencing the outdoors is paramount to children’s development and well-being.
If you prefer not to pod during the pandemic, follow the lead of Dave Rubenstein, a father of two in Lawrence, Kan., by enacting “Forced Family Fun Time.”
“We call it F.F.F.T.,” Mr. Rubenstein said of the weekly activity. “It usually involves a hike around the lake in town, but it could be any outdoor activity teenagers typically hate. And if they complain, the punishment is more F.F.F.T.”
EXPERIENCING COMMUNITY — AND FREEDOM
Form a friendly neighborhood bike gang.
“Kids are biking like never before,” said Jon Solomon, a spokeman for the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, the nonprofit’s initiative to help build healthy communities through sports. Over the year, leisure bike sales grew 203 percent year over year, he said.
In one neighborhood in Denver, one neighbor has opened up a half-mile dirt bike track on his property to all the kids on the block. Wyatt Isgrig, 14, and his friends tackle it often by mountain bike, scooter or motorized dirt bike.
Ali Freedman, a mother of two in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood, has loved watching children of all ages on her street playing together. “Every day around 3:30 p.m., kids we never knew before Covid come biking by our house asking ‘Can you play?’” Ms. Freedman said.
The young crew all wear masks — “Moms have a text thread going to check on enforcement when masks become chin diapers,” said Ms. Freedman, who peers out the window every so often — and best of all: “They stay out until dinner.”
CREATING SOMETHING NEW, TOGETHER
Invent your own game.
In a September survey conducted by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University in response to the coronavirus pandemic, 71 percent of parents said “individual games” (like shooting baskets solo) were the form of sport with the highest comfort level for their kids, followed by classic neighborhood pickup games like basketball or tennis.
But inventing your own game has its own rewards. One otherwise boring day in suburban Maryland, Mr. Solomon and his son, 11, came up with something they call hock-ball. It involves a hockey stick and a tennis ball and an empty sidewalk or street.
Mr. Solomon attempted to explain. “You roll the tennis ball like a kickball — it could be smooth, or slow, or bouncy — and the person with the stick tries to hit it past the pitcher, then runs back and forth to home plate.” There are points and innings and it’s apparently fun for all ages. “Only problem is, the ball inevitably rolls under a parked car, ” Mr. Solomon said.
A (COLD) SURGE OF HOMETOWN PRIDE
Bundle up for snow yoga.
In Milwaukee, where daily high temperatures in winter often hover below freezing, Kendra Cheng said her seventh grader will be doing much of the same as she did over the summer, only wearing more clothes: kickball, trampoline tag or even “water-skiing on land” — which calls for two kids, a broken hammer, a rope, and Rollerblades (or cross-country skis).
But the hot new thing in Ms. Cheng’s neighborhood, she said, will be snow yoga, led by a certified yogi friend. Once it starts snowing, 10 to 20 people will gather twice a week at a safe distance in a private backyard with a backdrop of Lake Michigan. “In Wisconsin, we love the cold,” Ms. Cheng said. “We love snowpants. We love barely being able to move because we have five layers on. And we’re all excited to do downward dog outdoors to create our sweat.”
If all else fails, bribe them.
Pay your kid — a dollar, a quarter, a penny — per minute to walk the pandemic puppy you just got.
“It gets them out of the house and out of my hair — and they earn some money,” said Murray Isgrig, parent of Wyatt in Denver. “Even though they don’t have anywhere to spend it.”
When is enough enough?
Even though the presidential election is over, we’re still doomscrolling through gloomy news about the coronavirus surge. The rest of your daily routine is probably something like mine while stuck at home in the pandemic: Divided among streaming movies on Netflix, watching home improvement videos on YouTube and playing video games. All of these activities involve staring at a screen.
There has to be more to life than this. With the holiday season upon us, now is a good time to take a breather and consider a digital detox.
No, that doesn’t mean quitting the internet cold turkey. No one would expect that from us right now. Think of it as going on a diet and replacing bad habits with healthier ones to give our weary eyes some much needed downtime from tech.
“There’s lots of great things to do online, but moderation is often the best rule for life, and it’s no different when it comes to screens,” said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the author of “iGen,” a book about younger generations growing up in the smartphone era.
Too much screen time can take a toll on our mental health, depriving us of sleep and more productive tasks, experts said. I, for one, am experiencing this. Before the pandemic, my average daily screen time on my phone was three and a half hours. Over the last eight months, that has nearly doubled.
So I turned to psychology experts for their advice. From setting limits to finding alternatives to being glued to our phones, here’s what we can do.
Come Up With a Plan
Not all screen time is bad — after all, many students are attending school via videoconferencing apps. So Step One is assessing which parts of screen time feel toxic and make you unhappy. That could be reading the news or scrolling through Twitter and Facebook. Step Two is creating a realistic plan to minimize consumption of the bad stuff.
You could set modest goals, such as a time limit of 20 minutes a day for reading news on weekends. If that feels doable, shorten the time limit and make it a daily goal. Repetition will help you form new habits.
That’s easier said than done. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist and co-author of the book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” recommended creating calendar events for just about everything, including browsing the web and taking breaks. This helps create structure.
For example, you could block off 8 a.m. to read the news for 10 minutes, and 20 minutes from 1 p.m. for riding the exercise bike. If you feel tempted to pick up your phone during your exercise break, you would be aware that any screen time would be violating the time you dedicated to exercise.
Most important, treat screen time as if it were a piece of candy that you occasionally allow yourself to indulge. Don’t think of it as taking a break as that may do the opposite of relaxing you.
“Not all breaks are created equal,” Dr. Gazzaley said. “If you take a break and go into social media or a news program, it can get hard to get out of that rabbit hole.”
Create No-Phone Zones
We need to recharge our phones overnight, but that doesn’t mean the devices need to be next to us while we sleep. Many studies have shown that people who keep phones in their bedrooms sleep more poorly, according to Dr. Twenge.
Smartphones are harmful to our slumber in many ways. The blue light from screens can trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime, and some content we consume — especially news — can be psychologically stimulating and keep us awake. So it’s best not to look at phones within an hour before bed. What’s more, the phone’s proximity could tempt you to wake up and check it in the middle of the night.
“My No. 1 piece of advice is no phones in the bedroom overnight — this is for adults and teens,” Dr. Twenge said. “Have a charging station outside the bedroom.”
Outside of our bedrooms, we can create other No-Phone Zones. The dinner table, for example, is a prime opportunity for families to agree to put phones away for at least 30 minutes and reconnect.
Resist the Hooks
Tech products have designed many mechanisms to keep us glued to our screens. Facebook and Twitter, for example, made their timelines so that you could scroll endlessly through updates, maximizing the amount of time you spend on their sites.
Adam Alter, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of the book “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” said that tech companies employed techniques in behavioral psychology that make us addicted to their products.
He highlighted two major hooks:
Artificial goals. Similar to video games, social media sites create goals to keep users engaged. Those include the number of likes and followers we accrue on Facebook or Twitter. The problem? The goals are never fulfilled.
Friction-free media. YouTube automatically plays the next recommended video, not to mention the never-ending Facebook and Twitter scrolling. “Before there was a natural end to every experience,” like reading the last page of a book, he said. “One of the biggest things tech companies have done was to remove stopping cues.”
What to do? For starters, we can resist the hooks by making our phones less intrusive. Turn off notifications for all apps except those that are essential for work and keeping in touch with people you care about. If you feel strongly addicted, take an extreme measure and turn the phone to grayscale mode, Dr. Alter said.
There’s also a simpler exercise. We can remind ourselves that outside of work, a lot of what we do online doesn’t matter, and it’s time that can be better spent elsewhere.
“The difference between getting 10 likes and 20 likes, it’s all just meaningless,” Dr. Alter said.
Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Move over sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. For today’s teenager, it’s all about the “likes.”
A “like,” for the uninitiated, refers to the positive feedback given to a post on social media. And new research shows that likes appear to be somewhat intoxicating to teenagers. The same reward center in the brain that is involved in the sensation of pleasure and activated by thoughts of sex, money or ice cream also is turned on when teenagers see their photos getting a lot of likes on social media.
To learn more about what drives social media use among teenagers, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted a novel experiment in which they recreated a photo-sharing social network similar to Instagram. The paper was published in the journal Psychological Science.
To do the study, the researchers recruited 32 people ages 13 to 18 and told them they were participating in a small social network modeled after Instagram, where friends or followers can endorse an image or video by clicking on a heart-shape icon.
In the experiment, researchers asked the teenagers to contribute some of their own photos, and then had them come in to the lab to look at nearly 150 images – including fairly bland photos, images of risky behavior and some of the teens’ own photos – while scientists analyzed their brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging.
As part of the experiment, the teens could also see how many likes had been given to each photo. Although the researchers had assigned the likes as part of the experiment, the teenagers were given the impression that the endorsements came from their peers.
When the youngsters viewed images that had a lot of likes, there was greater activity in neural regions of the brain involved with reward processing, social cognition, imitation and attention, researchers said, compared with neural reactions when the teens looked at photos with fewer likes.
The effect was magnified when they saw an image they themselves had contributed which had received a large number of likes, researchers said.
Teenagers were more likely to give a like to an image that had already gotten dozens of likes, even if it was a fairly banal picture of a plate of food or a pair of sunglasses. They were less apt to like the same kind of image if it had gotten few likes.
While the experiment focused on only a small group, it seemed to capture peer pressure in real time. But peer pressure is not always a bad thing, said the paper’s lead author, Lauren Sherman, and may play a critical role in teens’ accrual of social and cultural knowledge that’s essential to their development.
“Conformity is part of adolescence, and some of it is normal,” said Ms. Sherman, who prefers the term “peer influence” to “peer pressure.” “It’s how teenagers learn the rules of how to communicate and how to develop relationships.”
When the adolescents viewed images suggesting risky behavior (such as a bag of marijuana or pack of cigarettes), they were still influenced by their peers’ likes, but to a lesser extent, Ms. Sherman said. The researchers also did not see the same activation of the brain reward center, although they don’t know why. Teenagers viewing risky photos also exhibited decreased activity in brain regions involved in cognitive control and response inhibition, the regions that Ms. Sherman described as those that “put the brakes on, that tell us to be careful.”
Kate Mills, a postdoctoral fellow in developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oregon, agreed. “Peer pressure gets bad press when peers are influential in a negative direction, but peers can also be influential in a good way,” Dr. Mills said. “The wonderful thing about our reward circuitry is that it’s not just involved with things we think of as hedonistically pleasurable. This is a circuitry that’s involved in learning about the environment.”
The likes are “potentially serving as a social cue, orienting them to what is cool or socially appropriate,” Ms. Sherman said. “Learning about the social world is a really important task of adolescence.”
Credit Courtesy of the Big Sur International Marathon
At a recent 5K in Boston, I got off to an aggravatingly sluggish start. I couldn’t get going, not really, because runners around me took pictures and videos of themselves beginning the race. Then I nearly barreled into a runner who came to a dead stop to take a picture of the pros who had started the race waves ahead of us as they came across the finish. When I reached the point in the race that crosses over the finish line to the Boston Marathon, where an announcer repeated loudly over and over that runners should not stop to take selfies, two runners just ahead of me did anyway, mucking up the path of the runners behind them. I snapped and yelled, loudly, “Just run!”
I’ve been running for 10 years, and there have always been inconsiderate racers who do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want. But with the advent of smartphones, such incidents have blossomed.
Smartphones can be powerful running tools: They track your progress and location, play your music and podcasts, and can serve as a safety device in case you get lost or need assistance. Race officials have also created apps to keep runners up to date with what’s going on during race weekend or, in the case of an emergency, during the race itself.
But smartphones have also become social media spouts for runners to take selfies, FaceTime a family member on a crowded course, or chat on the phone in the middle of a race, oblivious to the people behind and around them.
According to Running USA, a nonprofit group that tracks data and trends on running, 61 percent of runners regularly run with a cellphone, most commonly to play music, track mileage and workouts, map routes and use GPS features. The group found that millennials and Gen Xers are most likely to run with their cellphones, and also most likely to use social media channels to share running-related activities.
Credit Courtesy of the Big Sur International Marathon
“Tech is just such an important part of sport in general, whether it’s nutrition, training information, event information, fitness tracking — there’s so many uses or applications for technology now,” said Rich Harshbarger, the chief executive of Running USA.
While he knows that this can cause some friction in races, he sees social media as having helped the sport. “It has made the sport more accessible, less intimidating, and I think it encourages participation,” he said. That finish line photo, or sharing a training run on Twitter, can help runners find others who are doing similar events, and encourage them to train or run a race together. Seeing people just like you doing this thing they love can also inspire you to try it too.
While race directors are embracing the technology to enhance their events, they are also coming up with creative ways to deal with the downside of smartphones.
Many runners elect to take on the grueling hills of the Big Sur International Marathon because of its breathtaking views along the coast of California. The marathon’s race director, Doug Thurston, knows that most will be taking pictures during the race.
“I don’t think you could ever” ban runners from taking photos, he said. “And I don’t think you want to do that.” He just wants runners to do so safely, and to be considerate of others on the course.
The Big Sur marathon’s safety rules specifically ask runners to move “to the far left side of the road or the dirt shoulder before taking pictures.” The course also has designed mile markers with ample space around them where people can stop to take pictures.
“We have iconic images on our course, and that’s what we’re known for,” Mr. Thurston said. “We encourage people to document and catalog their experiences. But we encourage them to do it safely, with minimal effects to other participants.”
In 2014, after a series of much publicized incidents, including one woman who ran the New York City Half Marathon snapping selfies at every mile with a different man in the background of each picture, the New York Road Runners added a section to their code of conduct under the label “Mobile Devices” that says using smartphones for pictures and social media updates during any of their races is “strongly discouraged, as it decreases your awareness of other participants around you.” They have also banned selfie sticks entirely from races.
“It’s part of the changing landscape of what’s going on here and in the world. It’s an evolution,” said Peter Ciaccia, president of events for the New York Road Runners and race director of the New York City Marathon. “We don’t want to be the run police. We want everybody to come out and have a good time, and the message we keep driving home is that everyone should be respectful of each other and be aware of what’s going on around them.”
Mr. Harshbarger of Running USA, who spends a lot of time in airports while traveling for his job, points out that the problem isn’t limited to races. If “someone is walking in the middle of the airport terminal texting and weaving all over, I want to ask, ‘Can you just get out of the way, because I have a connection?’”
Or, as I might yell, “Just move!”
Jen A. Miller is the author of “Running: A Love Story.”
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Leaving for sleepaway camp is, for many children, a major step toward independence. Today, when cellphones keep parents and children in nearly constant contact, the fact that most camps have phone-free policies makes breaking away even more of a challenge.
“Camp-age kids, by even 10 or 11, are used to texting and being in frequent contact with their parents,” said Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist who focuses on youth development and summer camp. “How we communicate has changed the nature of attachment, and it complicates the separation that kids and parents go through,” he said.
According to a Pew Research Center study, teenagers send and receive an average of 67 texts per day. Kids are on their phones in school, in restaurants, on vacations and even in bed. For many, sleepaway camp remains one of the last oases, largely untouched by technology.
Yalda T. Uhls, author of “Media Moms & Digital Dads” and a child development expert with Common Sense Media, conducted a study showing that sixth graders who spent just five days at a tech-free sleepaway camp developed greater understanding of real-world interpersonal communication cues, including a better ability to read facial expressions, make eye contact, and interpret tone of voice and other prompts, such as posture and keeping an appropriate spatial distance with others.
“Camp is a sacred space to unplug and be able to learn independence and social skills,” Dr. Uhls said. “It’s really important to put devices down and practice the art of face-to-face communication.”
Putting down the phone can be at least as hard for the parents, who are often anxious about separating from their children and are used to constant check-ins, whether they are in the next state or the next room. We may complain that our children are always on the phone but “the reality is that we want that instant access to our children,” Dr. Uhls said.
Corey Dockswell, the director of Camp Wicosuta, a girls’ camp in Hebron, N.H., said the no-phone rule can be tough for parents. “They’ll say, ‘I’m used to talking to her all the time,’” she said. “It’s a steep learning curve for them.”
When Carrie Irvin, president of a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., decided to send her two daughters to Wicosuta, it was a difficult transition. “I have a really hard time dialing it back but I needed it. It was so important for them and our relationship, and I’m grateful that camp made me do it,” she said.
With this constant communication, children seek their parents’ guidance and emotional support even when they are not together, leaving fewer opportunities to develop their own confidence and internal compass for decision-making. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and the author of the parenting book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” tells the story of a college student at a salad bar who texted her mother to ask if she liked ranch dressing, rather than testing it herself. Such dependent relationships can rob children of the chance to trust and believe in someone else besides their parents. Creating bonds with others is one of the most important benefits of camp, and it is more likely to happen without the electronic connection to home.
At Camp Walden in Diamond Point, N.Y., “we talk about phones all the time. It’s a huge change in their life,” said Lauren Bernstein, the owner and director. And campers aren’t the only ones unplugging. Counselors and staff members are allowed to use phones only during their time off, so campers rarely even see a cellphone. “It’s important that our entire team live like the kids do,” she said. “Camp is a different world, and we want to keep it that way.”
But many camps are using workarounds, sending a daily email blast and photos of children engaging in camp activities, for example. Some also allow parents to email campers daily – printing out the messages and distributing them to campers at mail time.
To prepare to detach for camp, Dr. Thurber recommends families try one tech-free day per week over the month before camp, with no recreational screen time. “It’s good to practice some withholding from real-time digital communication and learn to not reflexively reach for cellphones,” he said.
Children and parents can get ready by drafting practice letters or journal entries with a bit more of a narrative than the brief, immediate social media contact they are used to. Counsel your child on using an appropriate greeting and sign-off and writing with adjectives that actually describe how they’re feeling rather than using emojis. The goal is to arrive at camp with those new skills in place.
Some kids say unplugging from social media is a relief. Sofia Jacobson, 12, who attends Camp Walden, said, “I love having a break from it. It’s nice to let go and not have to think about what anyone else is doing.”
Finally, parents can help their children and themselves by shifting their mind-set and creating positive expectations for cutting the electronic umbilical cord. Rather than seeing a break from technology as some sort of punishment, view it as an opportunity to be present, nurture relationships and be creative.
“The single most important fact about sleepaway camp is that children are away from their parents, where they experience their camp as their own, their camp friends as their own, and the experience as their own,” said Michael Thompson, the author of “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow.”
He added, “You cannot ever fully experience things as your own when your mother is looking over your shoulder, actually or electronically.”
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Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Chip Foley has competed in 50 triathlons, but now he’s turning his focus upside down. “My ultimate goal is to be able to do a handstand and hold it for 30 seconds,” he said.
To achieve the feat, he is pursuing a rigorous training regimen: attending daily classes at Lyons Den Power Yoga, a studio in TriBeCa that specializes in hot yoga; studying handstand videos on YouTube; and doing core-strengthening exercises at home four or five times a week. “I’m obsessed with it,” said Mr. Foley, 38, who spends his right-side-up time as the owner of a Manhattan-based technology consulting firm.
Why the fixation? Social media could be the culprit. Sarah Turk, a lead analyst with IBISWorld, a market research firm, said yoga poses lent themselves to showing off. And Instagram has the numbers to support that statement: The hashtag “yogaeverydamnday” has racked up over five million posts; #handstand and #handstands, over 400,000.
“There’s a level of badassness to it,” said Metta Murdaya, 41, who has been working on her handstand for the past two years. Ms. Murdaya, co-founder of JUARA Skincare, said her inversion practice made her feel more confident, fearless and focused, which she channels into her work as an entrepreneur.
“Literally, you succeed because you refuse to fail,” she said.
The rise of the inversion comes with the rise of the yoga and Pilates industry in the United States, which brought in an estimated $9.1 billion in 2015, according to an IBISWorld report prepared by Ms. Turk. A Yoga in America study recently found that the number of yoga students increased to 36 million in 2016 from 20.4 million in 2012.
Owners of trendy studios that have cropped up to meet New Yorkers’ demands for new ways to practice yoga, like Lyons Den, Pure Yoga and Y7 Studio, said that they had noticed an uptick in requests for inversion workshops and time devoted to handstands and headstands in class. Y7, which holds yoga classes set to pop and hip-hop music in rooms heated by infrared light, has already held four sold-out, two-hour inversion workshops this year, said Sarah Larson Levey, a founder of the studio.
Credit Juara Skincare
Kiley Holliday, who teaches at Pure Yoga and Equinox in Manhattan, says handstands are popular among her students because of the feeling of accomplishment they experience when they are finally able to do them.
Inversions help students be present in the moment, a perennial objective among yogis, she added. “You will never be more focused than when you are upside down,” Ms. Holliday said. “It is impossible to think of anything else than what you are doing.”
The danger, of course, is taking a tumble, which for many is a rite of passage. “We all fall,” said Lauren Abramowitz, 39, founder of Park Avenue Skin Solutions, who has posted pictures of herself online in an advanced-level scorpion pose (a handstand with a backbend). “It’s not a matter of if, it’s how do you get back up.”
Dr. Gregory Galano, an orthopedic surgeon affiliated with Lenox Hill Hospital, said he often saw patients with yoga-related injuries. “Doing repetitive or long-lasting handstands can lead to everything from low-grade wrist sprains and tendinitis to more serious labral tears in the shoulder,” he said.
He recommends that people slowly work up to more challenging poses. “You want to do things in a controlled and safe manner,” Dr. Galano said.
Credit From left: Melissa Perlzweig, Lauren Abramowitz and Elina Lin
To that end, the trainer Kira Stokes prepares students for handstands with a variety of core-strengthening moves in her Stoked 360 class at BFX Studio, the studio brand of New York Sports Clubs, owned by Town Sports International. One of her favorite exercises, a pike on a stability ball that involves bringing the hips over the shoulders, also helps improve shoulder stability and balance.
“Its more than a good party trick,” Ms. Stokes said of achieving a handstand. “It takes strength, balance, coordination and body awareness — all in one move.” She likes to do them, she said, because the practice “boosts my energy and is great for the circulatory system.”
For those who are starting out, just propping your legs against a wall and breathing deeply can give you some of the same energy-boosting benefits, said Sally Melanie Lourenco, a yoga and meditation teacher. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable flipping their world upside down.”
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The laid-back, underachieving boy; the hyperachieving, anxious girl. Over the three decades since I graduated from medical school, and especially over the past 10 years, this pattern has become increasingly common in my practice.
In one case, which is pretty typical, my patient’s parents are concerned about their son. He’s not working hard at school and his grades are sliding. At 16, he spends most of his free time playing video games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, or surfing the Web for pictures of girls. He’s happy as a clam.
Both parents are actually quite proud of their 14-year-old daughter, who is a straight-A student, an athlete and has many friends. But when I met with her, she told me that she isn’t sleeping well. She wakes up in the middle of the night, feeling remorseful about having eaten a whole slice of pizza for dinner. She often has shortness of breath. Recently she has begun cutting herself with razor blades, on her upper inner thigh where her parents won’t see. She hasn’t told her parents any of this. On the surface, she is the golden girl. Inside, she is falling apart.
Why is it that girls tend to be more anxious than boys?
It may start with how they feel about how they look. Some research has shown that in adolescence, girls tend to become more dissatisfied with their bodies, whereas boys tend to become more satisfied with their bodies. Another factor has to do with differences in how girls and boys use social media. A girl is much more likely than a boy to post a photo of herself wearing a swimsuit, while the boy is more likely to post a photo where the emphasis is on something he has done rather than on how he looks. If you don’t like Jake’s selfie showing off his big trophy, he may not care. But if you don’t like Sonya’s photo of herself wearing her bikini, she’s more likely to take it personally.
Imagine another girl sitting in her bedroom, alone. She’s scrolling through other girls’ Instagram and Snapchat feeds. She sees Sonya showing off her new bikini; Sonya looks awesome. She sees Madison at a party, having a blast. She sees Vanessa with her adorable new puppy. And she thinks: I’m just sitting here in my bedroom, not doing anything. My life sucks.
Boys are at lower risk for the toxic effects of social media than girls are, for at least three reasons. First, boys are less likely to be heavily invested in what you think of their selfies. “Does this swimsuit make me look fat?” is a question asked by girls more often than by boys. Second, boys tend to overestimate how interesting their own life is. Third, the average boy is likely to spend more time playing video games than Photoshopping his selfie for Instagram. And in video games, unlike social media, everybody truly can be a winner, eventually. If you play Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty long enough, you will, sooner or later, complete all the missions, if you just keep at it.
Parents can’t easily change any of those factors. You can’t easily get a girl to be less concerned about her looks; or to overestimate how interesting her own life is; or to care more about completing all the missions in Grand Theft Auto than about how many likes she’s getting on Instagram (nor is it clear that this last change, even if accomplished, would be a change for the better). So what can you do, to improve the odds for your daughter?
If your daughter is the girl sitting in her bedroom looking at other girls’ social media, maybe she shouldn’t be in her bedroom at all. In the typical American household today, when kids go home, they go to their bedrooms and aren’t seen again except perhaps for meals. That’s crazy. A family can’t be a family if the kids spend more time alone in their bedrooms than with their family members. Insist that your daughter, or son, do whatever they’re doing online in a public space: in the kitchen or the living room. There should be nothing in the bedroom except a bed: no TV, no PlayStation, no screens. That’s the official recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Another suggestion: fight for suppertime. And don’t allow phones at the table. In a 2013 Canadian survey of kids across a range of backgrounds, those who had more meals with parents were much less likely to have been feeling sad, anxious or lonely. They were more likely to help others and more likely to report being satisfied with their own lives. But be mindful of what you say at the table. Discussions of poor grades or disappointing test scores are out of bounds. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Of course. The origin of the universe and the meaning of life? Certainly. But the personal shortcomings of your child are, as a rule, not appropriate suppertime conversation in a loving family.
A third suggestion: No headsets and no earbuds in the car. When your child is in the car with you, you should be listening to her and she should be listening to you – not to Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus or Akon or Eminem. Teach the art of face-to-face conversation. Or play a word game. Or have the whole family sing a song. Or make up a limerick, as my family and I did last night. It sounds corny, but it helps.
If your daughter is not sleeping at night, or is cutting herself with razor blades, then limericks at the dinner table are not likely to be a sufficient cure. I do prescribe medication, cautiously and judiciously, for the clinically anxious girl. There is also a role for professional counseling, alongside or sometimes in place of medication. Regardless, medication should never be the most important part of the treatment. The most important part of the treatment is to prioritize the family, to give your child a secure grounding in a loving home.
Leonard Sax is a psychologist and a practicing family physician in West Chester, Pa., and the author, most recently, of “The Collapse of Parenting.”
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Recently, university researchers asked children and parents to describe the rules they thought families should follow related to technology.
In most cases, parents and children agreed — don’t text and drive; don’t be online when someone wants to talk to you. But there was one surprising rule that the children wanted that their parents mentioned far less often: Don’t post anything about me on social media without asking me.
As in, no pictures of them asleep in the back of the car. No posts about their frustration with their homework. That victory picture after the soccer game? Maybe. The frustrated rant about the fight you just had over laundry? No way.
The answers revealed “a really interesting disconnect,” said Alexis Hiniker, a graduate student in human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington who led the research. She, along with researchers at the University of Michigan, studied 249 parent-child pairs distributed across 40 states and found that while children ages 10 to 17 “were really concerned” about the ways parents shared their children’s lives online, their parents were far less worried. About three times more children than parents thought there should be rules about what parents shared on social media.
Sites like Facebook and Instagram are now baked into the world of today’s families. Many, if not most, new parents post images of their newborn online within an hour of birth, and some parents create social media accounts for the children themselves — often to share photos and news with family, although occasionally in the pursuit of “Instafame” for their fashionably clad, beautifully photographed sons and daughters.
With the first babies of Facebook (which started in 2004) not yet in their teens and the stylish kids of Instagram (which started in 2010) barely in elementary school, families are just beginning to explore the question of how children feel about the digital record of their earliest years. But as this study, although small, suggests, it’s increasingly clear that our children will grow into teenagers and adults who want to control their digital identities.
“As these children come of age, they’re going to be seeing the digital footprint left in their childhood’s wake,” said Stacey Steinberg, a legal skills professor and associate director of the Center on Children and Families at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. “While most of them will be fine, some might take issue with it.”
Some children and teenagers question both past and present sharing. “I really don’t like it when my parents post pictures of me on their social media accounts, especially after finding out that some of my friends follow them,” said Maisy Hoffman, 14, an eighth grader who lives in Manhattan. “I worry more about my dad. He doesn’t always ask if he can post things, so I immediately turn away and ask if he’s going to post it. Or I’ll find out later because my friend saw something of me on his Instagram and I’ll have to ask him to take it down.”
Other parents can also present a problem for the child who prefers to control how she appears online. Wendy Bradford, a mother of three elementary-school aged children in Manhattan, said that when parent chaperones took pictures during a third-grade field trip to the zoo, her daughter “hid when she saw the phones because she didn’t want the pictures to be posted on Facebook with her in them.”
Isabella Aijo, 15, a high school sophomore in Natick, Mass., said, “I definitely know people who have parents who post things they wish weren’t out there. There was a girl in my eighth grade class whose mom opened a YouTube account for her in the fourth grade to show off her singing,” she wrote to me in an email. “Finally, on one of the last months of middle school, a peer played the song in class and almost the entire class laughed hysterically over it.”
Those early posts from parents linger, not just online, but in our children’s memories — and the topics may be things we don’t see as potentially embarrassing. The son of a friend (who asked that I not use her name) still brings up things she wrote about his picky eating when he was younger — years ago, she says.
But that kind of sharing — about food issues, potty training and tantrums — is exactly the kind of sharing that can be valuable. “Children benefit from the community created when parents have the ability to share their stories,” said Ms. Steinberg. Those posts about picky eating might have helped my friend find solutions, or a fresh wellspring of patience for a behavior her child would eventually outgrow.
When parents share those early frustrations, they don’t see themselves as exposing something personal about their children’s lives, but about their own. As a society, says Ms. Steinberg, “we’re going to have to find ways to balance a parent’s right to share their story and a parent’s right to control the upbringing of their child with a child’s right to privacy.
“Parents often intrude on a child’s digital identity, not because they are malicious, but because they haven’t considered the potential reach and the longevity of the digital information that they’re sharing,” said Ms. Steinberg.
In general, said Sarita Schoenebeck, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, who co-authored the research, both children and parents considered positive images, events and news more appropriate to share than negative ones. Parents can consider, too, the searchability and reach of the format (although those are always evolving). A frustrated tweet about a child who won’t eat her cereal because it’s not in a red bowl is a lot less likely to resurface than a YouTube video of the resulting tantrum. Looking for advice or sympathy about a behavioral problem? Skip both the image, and your child’s name, in a post to limit later searches.
At our house, I sometimes see the hesitation in my oldest son, who is 14, when I bring out the camera at a goofy moment, but we have a whole house rule: no sharing images of anyone else without their consent, ever. That trust means I get my candid shots, and he keeps his digital identity, whatever he eventually wants it to be, intact.
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