She's late for school. Her mom works second shift, so it's up to her to set an alarm, make breakfast and catch the bus. She's 11 and has almost zero parental supervision.
Her clothes are old and worn; she is responsible for washing them and making them last. After school, she hangs with older kids who introduce her to marijuana. Soon she'll try other drugs, and not long after, sex.
This or something similar likely comes to mind when you hear the words “at-risk youth.” Today, the term has grown to envelop a much broader demographic — all because of social media.
Online networks perpetuate an impossibly high standard of “normal” which in turn has cracked open the traditionally understood definition of at risk to now encompass anyone with access to the internet and pop culture.
What defines at-risk youth?
A successful transition to adulthood can be threatened by challenges such as family instability/dysfunction and poor community resources, as well as poverty.
At-risk youth may lack interest or have trouble focusing on academics, leading to a general disconnect and difficulties becoming economically self-sufficient later in life.
Navigating the already-confusing, high-stress period of adolescence can be especially challenging for girls as they deal with amplified emotional, physical and social pressures — all while under the lens, and influence, of social media.
More than 40% of girls use social media for more than three hours a day, compared to 20% of boys who use it for the same length. Girls are more prone to potential risks, such as low self-esteem, and are more than twice as likely to become depressed.
Part of the reason is because of the way teenage girls handle the stress and pressure of their developing bodies and fluctuating emotions.
They internalize feelings and get caught in negativity loops exacerbated by external pressures, such as unrealistic body image standards and bullying.
Without the proper tools or knowledge to cope, they become “at risk.” Warning signs include drastic changes in friendships and appearance, disinterest in previous hobbies and increased time spent alone. It is important to be able to recognize these indicators and act accordingly to mitigate further negative changes and help prevent early addiction, self-harm or abuse.
To empower, encourage and inspire all of our youths to reach their goals and stay confident in the process, safe spaces are needed to be able to build crucial leadership skills, help them find their voice and grow.
One of the best tools to fight the erosion of confidence is exercise. A study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise has found that exercise can reduce symptoms of depression and even help prevent it. Increased blood flow to the brain stimulates cognitive function, affecting the cellular makeup in addition to the release of mood-boosting endorphins.
One of the best side effects of exercise for teens is stress relief and better management of both physical and mental stress. Even just 30 minutes a couple times a week can help alleviate anxiety and anxiety sensitivity.
Physical exercise starts a chain reaction of positive effects through physical and mental transformation.
Other benefits include better sleep and feelings of calm, increased self-esteem and self-image, sharpened memory and learning capabilities.
It can also deprioritize cravings and counteract negative effects from drug or alcohol abuse, increase energy level and productivity, and spark inspiration and creative thinking.
Regulated mentoring — especially peer to peer — is another a way to improve moral reasoning and empathy, catalyzing increased connection to school and community, better problem-solving, communication and conflict resolution, even better organizational skills.
All these help lead to increased self-esteem and resiliency, improved grades, academic motivation and achievement, better social skills and behavior, and the strengthening of relationships with peers and family.
With modern internet-influenced lifestyles, we need to open our minds to the concept that, generationally, all youth are at risk. Organized groups can be a saving grace for otherwise potentially wayward teens.
Consider supporting local community outreach programs to help prevent youths from going down the wrong path.
Tisha-marie Ann Stotlar is CEO and founder of the Fort Wayne-based nonprofit, Bring It-Push It-Own It.