Vaping, anxiety, depression, mental illness, trauma, school shootings, gun control, suicide—these are just a few of the many challenges facing today’s teens, and with which families, government officials, and educators across the country are grappling. The key to this effort is twofold: first, understanding the impact of trauma, technology and media on teens; and second, addressing the real heart of the matter—reconnecting teens with their worth as image bearers of their Creator.
The Impact of Trauma
I recently came across the moving documentary Paper Tigers, which powerfully demonstrates the need to address mental health and trauma issues differently in schools today. The film follows six students and their progress through Lincoln Alternative High School in Washington state. Upon trying a radically new approach to reach these broken, hurting students, the school experienced a 75% decrease in school fights and a fivefold increase of graduates in just a three-year period.
The approach? High School Principal Jim Sporleder trained his faculty and staff to better understand toxic stress— “a term used to describe traumatic experiences in childhood which threaten healthy brain development and are associated with lifelong health and social problems.” Sporleder explained that researchers have identified toxic stress “as a key contributor to epidemics of poverty, violence and disease.” The school revised their philosophy of discipline from one of judgment and suspension, to one of understanding and treatment.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in seven children experience abuse. Thus, Lincoln equipped their faculty and staff to enable students to identify and address what are known as their “ACES”—Adverse Childhood Experiences. These traumatic events can range from emotional, physical, psychological or sexual abuse, to spousal abuse, to individuals in the home who are mentally ill, criminal or imprisoned, substance abusers, or suicidal.
Furthermore, research has shown that multiple ACES can impact development of the brain, immune systems and nervous systems in children and teens. For example, when students experience four or more of the traumas listed above, the likelihood of imprisonment or suicide increases exponentially.
The Impact of Technology and Media
And what about students who have not experienced adverse childhood experiences, but nevertheless struggle with mental health issues in the growing digital age? Consider this observation from Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of iGen: “At first, when I saw these trends in loneliness and unhappiness and depression starting to spike around 2011 or 2012, I really had no idea what could possibly be causing that. It was a real mystery.” But as Twenge shared recently with NPR, “she took note of Pew’s research that showed 2012 was the first year that most cell phone owners had switched to smartphones.” Newer research from the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry has gotten even more specific—connecting the use of social media, rather than screen time in general, to the growth in mental health issues among teens, including violence.
When it comes to the influence of media violence, in 2000, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, and American Psychological Association made a joint statement to Congress regarding the link between media and societal violence: “Viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children. Its effects are measurable and long-lasting. Moreover, prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life.” To be clear, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not seek to lay total blame on media violence in any of their policy statements regarding “leading causes of any particular health concerns.” However, “epidemiologically speaking,” they note that media violence “may contribute 10 percent to 20 percent to any given problem…a considerable amount given that we potentially have more control over media than other risk factors (e.g. poverty, low IQ, mental illness).”
Since this statement was made in the year 2000, an entire generation has grown up on more realistic, ultra-violent media content—whether it be ﬁlms (Halloween 2018, the Saw series), TV-shows (The Walking Dead, Dexter), or video games (especially popular ﬁrst-person shooter series such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto). Meanwhile, violence has skyrocketed in schools. As The Washington Post documents, since the Columbine High massacre in 1999, 236,000 children have been exposed to gun violence during school hours—with 146 children, educators and others killed and another 310 injured.
Is it not common sense to deduce that a generation growing up on realistic, ultra-violent ﬁrst-person shooter video games with little to no moral compass and/or mental health issues is an unhealthy mix?
Education and the Imago Dei
Providing mentors, counselors, health clinicians tools to discipline from a relational approach with trauma victims can go a long way in addressing the growing challenges in our public and private schools. As the film Paper Tigers demonstrates, “according to research about childhood trauma, all of the risk factors for adverse experiences can be offset by one thing: the presence of a stable, caring adult in a child’s life.” To this point, Lincoln opened a free health clinic for its students to provide primary care, mental health and substance abuse counseling to students in need. Many states are beginning to recognize the importance of trauma-based education through the provision of funding and mandates for such programs.
Relationships with caring adults and proper treatment for trauma and abuse are certainly important for Christian schools and their students. And yet, Christian schools can go even further by encouraging spiritual healing that comes with a relationship with one’s Creator. Interestingly, the doctor who ran Lincoln’s Health Clinic noted one of the biggest challenges facing teenage girls was their poor self-worth—whether it be what media teaches is sexy or the lack of nurturing fathers and/or father figures to name a few causes. And while Lincoln’s doctor validated the importance of sex education, she declared what was more important—teaching teen girls what positive, healthy relationships look like, and understanding their worth as a person.
For today’s teens, there is a deeper issue at stake—the Imago Dei—as people understand their true value only when they recognize they are created in the image of God. That is why my faith-based book In Whose Image? Image-Bearers of God vs. the Image-Makers of Our Time has a dual focus (hence the subtitle): to help teens understand what it means to be an image-bearer of God, as well as equipping them to avoid being negatively influenced by the image-makers of our time.
This resource, which starts in middle school, explores not only issues of body image, social media, pornography, and media violence, but is a program that teaches media discernment to help teens navigate their identity challenges—with the goal to equip them with a healthy image of themselves and others. It features new research from The Barna Group on Gen Z and over 40 engaging videos. My vision is that this book will serve as an engaging resource for teens and teachers alike—presenting a renewed sense of self-worth, purpose, and healthy media habits to speak truth and hope into the lives of our young people today.
As philosopher Ravi Zacharias (1994) so wisely notes, “A massive global assault has been launched upon us, and it is the arts more than any single force that predominate as an influential agent, molding our character, our values, and our beliefs. This invasion bypasses our reason and captures our imagination. Never before in history has so much been at stake as is now in the hands of the imagemakers of our time” (12). Given the visual mistreatment of humans and the harmful effects these violent images can have on teens—coupled with growing childhood anxiety, depression, and trauma—viewing themselves and others in the Imago Dei is more important now for teens than ever before. For as they understand they have a higher worth, they will prayerfully view others in this way as well.
Zacharias, R. 1994. Can Man Live Without God? Dallas: Word Publishing.
About the Author
With 25 years in education–17 years as a head of school–Imago Dei Leadership Forum (IDLF) President John Murray is a thought leader in regard to equipping children and parents to impact modern culture for Jesus Christ. John has extensive experience in impacting the broader public through speaking, writing, and filmmaking. His award-winning articles addressing education, history, politics, media and youth culture have appeared in numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Barna Group, The Washington Examiner, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Des Moines Register, The Atlanta Constitution, Citizen Magazine, Movieguide, and Fox News.com to name a few. He has also appeared on several media outlets and podcasts including CNBC, MSNBC, USA Today, The Daily Signal, Breakpoint, World Magazine’s “The World and Everything in It,” and CNN Radio, and his award-winning documentary, Think About It: Understanding the Impact of TV-Movie Violence was nationally distributed by Active Parenting from 2000-2010. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.