Can New Media Curb Anxiety in Stressed Out Students?

ekgmouse.jpgMedia’s taking a lot of hits lately for being ‘always on’ 24/7 and creating school environs where kids are either in ‘robo-student’ mode or a perpetual flurry of multi-tasking buzz.

Recent articles about the pressure-cooker preteen years abound, with studies on worry, anxiety, depression and stress in the digital generation of internet adolescence.

Bay Area data shows “stress among children” (academic & family matters) beat out parent concerns over weight, drug use and gang involvement for the second year in a row according to polls conducted by Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health.

Now, what if new media technology could CALM stress? Hmn.

There are some interesting ‘test anxiety’ studies funded by the U.S. Dept. of Education for the Institute of HeartMath which have caught my eye.

HeartMath is described as a nonprofit global leader in researching the critical link among emotions, heart-brain communication and cognitive function. They use software technology to reduce emotional stress in kids and adults, and their preliminary TestEdge results with students merit a further look-see.

This Sunday, the call-in talkshow topic on Rona Renner’s Childhood Matters radio show is all about school stress and preteens, so I may run their research by Denise Clark Pope, PhD, author of “Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students.”

Denise Clark Pope is the Founder and Director of the SOS: Stressed Out Students project at Stanford University, and Rona Renner, RN, serves on our Shaping Youth Advisory Board. Rona’s radio show is archived to download if you miss tuning in, but I like to catch it live when I can to jump right into the conversation.

They’ll be taking open mike calls to dial down distress and offer suggestions for what adults can do to ease up on contributing any ancillary angst to kids.

The topic is timely…the ‘stressed out student’ syndrome and HeartMath media buzz of how their research on ‘coherence training’ reduces anxiety in kids has hopeful implications.

When Shaping Youth interviewed preteens on media’s age acceleration, body image issues, and peer-driven/pop culture behavioral cues, we found a lot of emotional angst pinging back to this same ‘academic achievement’ expectation.

We wanted to know what was triggering aggression and depression as well as reinforcing healthy, positive behaviors, so we asked kids:

“Do parents worry too much, and if so about what?”

“How we’re doing in school” topped the list, followed by “the whole boy/girl thing.”

I’m sure Dr. Denise will discuss the stresses created by ‘helicopter parents’ hovering over the ‘bubble-wrapped’ childhoods of ‘generation M,’ and overloaded multi-tasking teens but at Shaping Youth, we wanted to find out the specific role of MEDIA in the equation.

We flip-flopped the ‘worry’ question to the preteens and asked what THEY worry about too much and got some surprising answers.

For starters, mainstream news media plays a huge role in accountability here.

Aside from pop culture’s appearance-based stress based on body image, this group of ‘tweens’ had amazingly fear-fueled answers about predators, robbers, and ‘kidsnatching.’

You’d think a thug was ready to pounce on every bunk bed on the block the way they were reacting! It was as if they lived in an urban 6-lock tenement in the projects instead of middle class suburbia!

Their source? Journalistic over-play, media shows like CBS’ “To Catch a Predator” and local middle-school buzz.

The other huge media finding that kept surfacing in youth stress was the perpetuation of misinformation via internet scare stories. MySpace is not the ‘big bad wolf’ but myths of online stalkers are literally petrifying these kids.

That really irks me, for the media predator panic just doesn’t match the Crimes Against Children Research data which shows online stranger solicitation has DECREASED!

Look no further than the paranoia in this week’s school bulletin that came home to me:

“Get a glimpse into the ‘Dark side of the Internet’” and see first hand how our children are being solicited. Learn about the growing crime trends on the Internet and learn how to protect yourself and your children. Mark your calendars for our very important parent/community program scheduled at our next PTA general meeting. Officer (name deleted) with 16 years experience, will help answer some of the questions we all have as parents of middle school children who are growing up with the Internet. Please come prepared to be enlightened. This is an adult only presentation.

Now I’m sorry folks, but THAT is STRESSFUL, fear generated pablum.

That kind of hype flies in the face of every piece of statistically based online research about teen internet use, and creates NEEDLESS stress for both parents and kids!

The world is filled with enough stress without creating more to nosh upon.

It’s one thing to build preventive awareness and media literacy, but to get that heavy-handed on the law enforcement side is a shock tactic stressor that amps up the media volume to a fevered pitch.

PLUS, it can create cataclysmic chasms and misunderstandings between parents and kids that don’t even need to be there. Just look at all the household arguments swirling around social networking!

I attended the CyberSafety Summit in Sacramento this year, and gleaned excellent info from credible presenters like Anne Collier of Net Family News and Larry Magid from Safe Kids, aligned together at BlogSafety, but overall I got a distinct feeling there was WAY too much ‘fear peddling’ at that conference.

Law enforcement was a bit heavy-handed, with a “stress” tenor dominating over value-driven, balanced, insightful information.

I think the more we try to understand, relate to, and integrate new media as parents (like this great article on texting your teen) we’ll reduce stress on BOTH ends of the generational spectrum.

We can’t expect software like HeartMath to completely diminish student stress or MySpace to relieve parental stress by adding new techno-tools or notification layers of “Zephyr” software to ping and monitor kids’ ages, profiles and online habits.

Technology may be helpful to reduce stresses, but parents need to own how THEY can dial up or down the volume of stress in their own kids’ lives by THEIR actions and reactions. (That goes for hormonally-charged flare-ups and stressful peer spats to piano recitals and uber-achieving enrichment programs!)

As for the looming lawsuits against MySpace, that seems like a litigious game of deep pocket “diving for dollars” to me.
Geez, you can only “take stress off parents” so much with technology, at some point we’ve gotta insist that parents please parent!

There’s a fine line between being a ‘responsible corporate citizen’ and shifting to tattletale technology, so I concur with this article in Totally Wired.

I think I’ll need to interview the BlogSafety crew themselves to respond to both of these media ‘stress’ issues, as studies show many PARENTS use kids’ media engagement to unwind from stress themselves!

It all gets rather cyclic and enmeshed…

So back to the positive potential of student stress reducers at HeartMath…

HeartMath’s educational division found their program participants significantly:

· Reduced test anxiety levels
· Reduced negative feelings
· Increased ability to get along with and understand other students
· Increased positive feeling about their class

They showed educational research that revealed how HeartMath tools helped with kids’ psychosocial well-being, including resolving conflicts with family members and dealing with peer pressure.

Whoa. If new media can do all that, I say we ALL could get aboard that technology train.

HeartMath also makes a strong case for ‘resiliency’ which is a life skill ALL of us could use.

They’re currently studying retention of both students and teachers in California linking findings to student health and performance.

Their site says: “Lack of resiliency is one of the major reasons teachers leave the profession, especially during the first years of employment. HeartMath tools and technology have proven particularly effective in creating resiliency, holding onto it, and building it.”

I’m going to run this by Shaping Youth Advisory Board member Rick Phelan who is an MA/teacher type serving on CTAP, the California Technology Assistance Project which deals with information literacy.

He’s a technology guru, heavily involved with the testing initiatives and such, so I trust he’ll have a read on how HeartMath technology could “shape youth” in positive ways, or whether he’s even heard of it before.

Personally, I attended a hands-on experiential demo of the software via my NextNow thinktank collaboratory of intellectual techno-gurus, and was duly impressed with the concept which seems to have a lot of overlap with biofeedback training.

I’m always up for new things and if anything helps take stress out of our lives, you can count me in on a ‘trial.’ I’ll report back when I know more.

For now, I say any media’s worth a shot that claims to de-stress kids and contribute to their socio-emotional well-being.

It sounded a bit ‘new age-ey’ to me at first, but there’s some serious clinical and cardiac data behind it with solid research studies in hospitals, grants and funding backed by some big name institutions, and positive press.

Here’s what their site says about their current research:

HeartMath research has identified a measurable physiological state that underlies optimal learning and performance.

In this state, our emotions are calm, and our brain, nervous system and other bodily systems function with increased synchronization and harmony.

In simple terms, we’re highly in sync — physically, mentally and emotionally. This in turn facilitates the higher cognitive processes critical for focused attention, reasoning and creativity — all essential for effective learning, academic achievement and social success.”

As far as their new research, “Interventions will focus on social relations within the school environment and provide both teachers and students with the tools for enhancing resiliency and improving communication and school system function. IHM hopes to show that through the use of relational and emotional management techniques, both high school student drop-out rates and first-year and early-tenure teacher attrition can be significantly reduced.”

Those are ALL strong goals and aspirational goods that I dare say most of us would like to see transpire with a new media gadget that you hook up to your thumb.

So, stay tuned…I’ll do a follow up. For now, I’ll turn to Denise Clark Pope and Rona Renner on 98.1 KISS-fm and hear what they have to say on the ‘stressed out student’ front…

As for the stress, guess I’d better get to the new year yoga class I keep meaning to start, and power up the HeartMath software to give it a go.

Can’t hurt. Might help.

p.s. Here are a few resources for eliminating stress from your household from a kids’ media literacy standpoint:

Coping with stressful headlines, life changes, terrorism, and daily fare, check out:

Frank Baker’s excellent K-12 Media Literacy Clearinghouse: Deals with everything from deciphering stressful media reports on topics like war and terrorism, to body image and critical thinking for kids at your average Superbowl Sunday party fest

AMLA: Uncorks stress associated with race relations, offers curriculum for de-stressing kids when a natural disaster occurs out of nowhere like Hurricane Katrina, which applies universally to earthquakes, typhoons and general ‘whoa nelly’ serendipitous life sojourns

SOS: Stressed Out Students: Learn more about their work at Stanford, and upcoming May 11, 2007 conference open to the public

Childhood Matters Radio Show: A few recent shows with socio-emotional topicality for audio download include: 12-17: When to Worry About Your Preteen; 11-19: The Preteen Years Growing & Changing; 11-12: Helping Kids Manage Their Emotions; 10-8: Your Preteen’s Desire for Independence; and 7-2: Media’s Influence on Toddlers Through Teens (featuring Shaping Youth & Common Sense Media!)

Tune in and call with your questions on “student stress” Sunday, 1-21, at 9-10am PST, (877) 372-KIDS. They usually post their weekly shows quite fast, so standby.

Finally, wise words to de-stress from youth days of old via Aesop’s Fables:

“A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.” ~Aesop’s Fables



  1. 5-HTP, L-Tryptophan and GABA are food supplements that are very helpful in easing up Anxiety and Depression.

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