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Childhood Anxiety Steadily On the Rise Since the 1950s

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WebMD Health News

Dec. 14, 2000 -- Job insecurity, relocation, divorce -- they play havoc with adults' lives. But what affect has such tumult had on children? A new study shows that since the 1950s, children have indeed been feeling repercussions of all this instability -- and that today's kids are suffering far more anxiety than any previous generation, leading some to call this "The Age of Anxiety."

"Anxiety has increased substantially among children and college-age students over the last three decades," says Jean M. Twenge, PhD, a psychologist with Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. "The average American child in the 1980s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s."

Her research -- the first to take this broad look at anxiety in children -- is published in this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"It shows that the larger social environment can have a large impact on personality traits and feelings such as anxiety," Twenge tells WebMD. "When [children] live in a society with a high crime rate, high divorce rate, and low levels of trust, they grow up feeling anxious."

Twenge analyzed published research on anxiety involving more than 40,000 college students and 12,000 children, aged 9-17, between 1952 and 1993. They represent a cross-section of American kids, she says -- "kids who grew up in cities, suburbs, rural areas, all sorts of environments."

Twenge found "steady and significantly large increases in anxiety levels" in children over the 30-year period.

Genetics plays some role in predisposition to anxiety, Twenge adds, but both her studies found that "decreases in social connectedness and increases in environmental dangers may be responsible for the increase in anxiety."

What she calls "environmental dangers" -- crime rate, AIDS, worry about nuclear war, and increase in suicide rate among teenagers -- showed a "direct correlation" with anxiety levels, she tells WebMD. The threats can be physical, like violent crime, or more psychological, like worrying about nuclear war. Also, she says, "most adolescents know someone, or knows somebody who knows someone, who has committed suicide."

Divorce played a significant role in children's anxiety. "The higher the divorce rate, the more people were living alone, the higher the anxiety," she tells WebMD.

"Also, with geographic mobility among families, involving relocations to new cities, you are more likely to not know your neighbors, to be away from family members," she says, increasing a child's isolation and loneliness.

Children -- more than college students -- seemed to be most affected by the family's stress. "That may be because personality is forming during childhood and adolescence. You are going to carry your child environment with you the rest of your life," says Twenge.

She tells WebMD, though, that economic factors -- like a parent's unemployment -- "did not seem to play a role in creating anxiety in children." Apparently, children are less concerned with whether their family has enough money than whether it is threatened by violence or divorce, she says.

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