The following article is in response to this article, “American Teens Are Driving Less, and the Reasons Are More Than Economic” by Edie Meade posted on Medium.com.
Working in the school system for many years and watching firsthand how the levels of anxiety/depression seem to be on the rise, I definitely think that this author hit the nail on the head with many of her thoughts on why teens are getting their drivers licenses later in life. However, my guess is that the percentages from the poll on WHY teens report that they are getting their licenses later may be a bit off the mark. You’ll notice that when polled, none of the teens mentioned anxiety or fear as a reason for delaying their licensing. As a mental health provider, I will tell you that anxiety and fear absolutely play a big factor in their rationale for not learning to drive these days, as well as a few other factors that I’ll touch on now.
We certainly live in a digital age now where it has become the norm to develop friendships over social media, break up with significant others via text, and maybe even bully others (or get bullied) from the protection of your computer screen. Many teens are just more comfortable staying home these days, and connecting virtually to meet their social needs. Or so they think. As adults who grew up WITHOUT being connected constantly, we know the benefits of making and sustaining friendships in person, learning to make eye contact with others, living through awkward break ups, and surviving to talk about it with your friends at the mall or local park. So I really do think that modern day technological advances that allow teens to connect with peers from their home screen can make learning to drive (and leave the house independently) less incentivizing.
Speaking of this new age we live in, taking “for hire” transportation services (i.e. Uber, Lyft, etc) has become totally socially acceptable at a young age, and is WAY easier for a teen than taking the time to go to driving school and log behind-the-wheel hours – especially if the app is connected to their parent’s credit card! Don’t get me wrong, there are major benefits to these for-hire services (think, teen drunk-driving). However, I would encourage parents not to always allow your teen to rely on this method and encourage them to problem solve how they need/want to get somewhere if you are unable to take them. This will provide incentive for them to get their license as well!
Another thing that has made the last decade unique is the existence of more and more overprotective (helicopter, snow plow, bull dozer – I have heard every metaphor!) parents. These are the parents who have paved the way for their child, making sure to remove any obstacles in their way, and therefore creating a subset of kids/teens who have a lower distress tolerance AND are who are much less likely to take risks when they know they might fail. So why even bother trying to drive, right? It sounds hard and scary. Plus many teens’ parents might be encouraging them to wait longer and longer based on their own anxiety issues with having a teenage driver in the house. So, take a deep breath parents, learning to drive is supposed to be a little nerve wracking for both of you! Don’t forget, mild amounts of anxiety are HEALTHY. This is how we stay motivated to get things done AND stay cautious while doing them.
So yes, it’s no secret that anxiety and depression rates in teens (and adults) are the highest the country has ever seen. I think there are many factors affecting why this is a steadily rising statistic (too many to talk about in this blog!), but what many of us fail to think about are all the less significant ways that this rise in mental health issues trickle into our communities. Like a decrease in enrollment in drivers ed courses, a decrease in the number of teens getting jobs, an increase in homelessness/poverty, and the list goes on. Oh yeah, and let’s sprinkle in a pandemic in the midst of all of these other factors too. We need to continue to be proactive with our mental health outreach, particularly for kids and teens because they are our future. Pushing them forward despite their (and our) fears, rather than holding them back, is always the goal to promote self-assured, flexible young adults. I am passionate about helping Arizona teens, and can’t wait to immerse myself more in the valley now that I am a new resident!
Carla Belsher, LCSW