My twin sons both completed their Leaving Cert exam this year. They both did well, but it was an incredibly tough year for them. I won’t go into the details, but it was rougher than any year I have experienced with them since they were born.

I have some thoughts.

Without a doubt, our kids are suffering from profound anxiety these days, and it’s much worse than anything our generation ever had to deal with. It’s amazing the number of parents I’ve met who have seen their teenagers go from happy go lucky individuals, to sad, anxious, depressed people as the big exams start to loom closer and closer.

Where is the anxiety coming from and what should we do?

In my mind, it seems that the problem often stems from kids falling behind in their schoolwork.

They have 7 or 8 subjects to do. The workload for each of these subjects is enormous. They have added project work that adds further to the workload. In some subjects they are doing ok, but other subjects are a chore. And, ever so slowly, the kids find it harder and harder to keep up.

You now have a kid that is falling behind where they should be. They go into class, and things start making less and less sense. This makes them bored, restless and anxious. They try to keep up, but the anxiety prevents them from learning properly. They might even feel lonely, because they can see that other students are managing the workload better than they are.

Now add to this toxic mix the adults: teachers and parents. We are either getting angry or we are over-stressing, and neither of these responses are very helpful. In fact we might only be making a bad situation worse.

As parents, in our overstressed state, we are running around for therapists and assessments . We are arranging doctors appointments. We are medicalising the problem. The current zeitgeist calls for us to reach for approaches such as drugs and therapy; the idea being that if we sort out the kids’ mental health needs, we can sort out the issue. But it doesn’t. Not really. Getting the right drugs and the right counselling could take ages to get right, and time is not something we have available to us as the exams loom closer.

The problem, in some cases, could be the ever increasing stress caused by falling behind in class. It might not necessarily be a serious mental health issue at all: just pressure upon pressure upon pressure.

But that pressure has always been there, you say. Clueless parents have always been there. The growing problems of youth have always been there. So why does it seem so much worse right now?

Certainly the lockdowns did not help. Without a doubt they have contributed greatly to the problem, but the problems that I and many others have experienced were there before COVID. Kids were suffering from bad anxiety and depression before the coronavirus ever raised its ugly spike proteins.

I think we have to look at social media as a major exacerbating factor: and it might not be bullying, or fear-of-missing-out, or even the general awfulness of our news nowadays. It might just be that our technical environment provides us with an easy, simple distraction for miserable, stressed and unhappy kids. Social media (Instagram , Reddit, YouTube and TikTok etc) are ever-available dopamine hits when things are bad and getting worse. Social media becomes one of the only things they can relate to when they are in a pit of despair.

Time was once that kids only had books or tv or games to provide a distraction. But none of these this had algorithms that were designed to maximise attention – and that might be contributing to the general feelings of anxiety. We have made the distractions too attractive. So instead of dealing with our problems head-on, we immediately escape into a space that doesn’t require anything from us except our attention.

So what to do about it? The bad news for parents is that often when the symptoms manifest it’s already too late. It’s ideally better to have a dialogue with the kids at the beginning of fifth year and to discuss ways of preventing from the kids falling behind at all. How they can organise their study and limit their social media usage. It would be even better if there were support structures in the schools to help kids stay on top of the workload.

Even better might be a a reduction of that very workload. There is a craziness about the Leaving Cert final exams that exacts a toll on our younger people. We need to make learning fun and interesting again, and we shouldn’t be forcing kids to study subjects they have no interest in.

Maybe if kids liked the schoolwork and were able to stay on top of that schoolwork, then they might not need social media to give them an outlet, and they might be more disciplined about its use.

The Leaving Cert is this awful, artificial barrier that we’ve created to ensure kids get into college. With every passing year it’s diverging further from its original purpose, and because we haven’t overhauled it properly it’s turned into an out of control monster. We need to think more about the end-goal and what our education systems can do to meet that goal in this very demanding century.