Anxiety on the rise among children, students

Two new studies report normal children today are more anxious than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s.

The studies, published in the December issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involved thousands of children and college students.

Study author Dr. Jean Twenge says the results suggest cases of depression will continue to increase in the coming decades since anxiety tends to predispose people to depression.

Twenge also said anxiety often leads to alcohol and drug abuse, and has implications for physical health and well-being. "Research has found that anxious people have a higher mortality rate, most likely because anxiety has been linked to higher occurrences of asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease and coronary heart disease," says Twenge.

Why so worried?

The author says the increased anxiety appears linked to environmental threats and a lack of social connectedness.

During the study period, social connectedness decreased because of higher divorce rates, more people living alone and a decline in trust in other people.

The author says many of these changes involve greater individualism - leading to increased challenges and excitement but also to greater isolation and more threats to body and mind.

Threats that increased over the study period were rates of violent crime, worries about nuclear war, and fear of diseases such as AIDS.

The study also cites increased media coverage as a source of a greater perception of environmental threat since the 1950s.

Since the study ended in 1993, some of these environmental threats have declined, including crime rates and worries about nuclear war, which are good signs for stopping or reversing increases in anxiety, according to Twenge.

But, she says, social connectedness has not improved very much since the early 1990s. She says though divorce rates have decreased somewhat, the number of people living alone continues to increase, and levels of trust are still declining.

One of the studies looked at anxiety scores in American college students from 1952 to 1993. The other looked at data from the same time period, but with scores from children aged nine to 17.

Both studies show a significantly large increase in anxiety levels, providing more evidence for what some authors have called "the age of anxiety."