SOPHER, LUCY CLARA
Lucy Clara Sopher
Age: 16, Grade: 10
School Name: Riverdale Country School, Bronx, NY
Educator: Johnny Hager
Category: Critical Essay
The Benefits and Pitfalls of “Self-Care”
If angst has always been a reality of adolescence, brain science helps explain why: Key cognitive functions are still developing well into an individual’s early- to mid-twenties. It’s possible, however, that we may have reached a tipping point. The toxic feedback loop of social media, consumerism, climate change, and academic demands have stressed out our entire generation to the point where “What’s your diagnosis?” has replaced “What’s your major?”
The track leading Gen Z to vape pens and other forms of self-medication for stress is complex. According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, experts have noted a rise in sleeplessness, loneliness, worry, and dependence corresponding to the release of the first iPhone. Adding to the trouble, health care cuts and shortages of mental health professionals in some regions mean that many young people don’t have access to proven treatments for anxiety. Though more than 30% of teenagers suffer from anxiety, fewer than 20% of them will get professional help for it. Although mental health care has never been more socially acceptable, members of Gen Z still show reluctance to seek out clinical treatment, even if their families can afford it.
That’s not to say that young people are passive in the face of their own symptoms: the recent craze for vaping and other forms of self-medication is influenced by the self-care trend, which comes packaged in the alluring language and imagery of the fitness and cosmetics industries. The population that seeks this out — largely younger women — presents a target for companies like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, which promotes alternative mental health treatments via gauzy photo spreads of flawless models covering their air-brushed bodies with anxiety-defeating “bio-frequency healing” stickers. In 2017, Real Clear Science called the company out for selling “crackpot supplements” and “crystal bottles to infuse water with energy.” They awarded Paltrow’s “insufferable” retail platform first place in their year-end “Junk Science” contest.
Helped along by pseudo-science, self-care has become an identity marker. The movement is integrated into the personal brands of social media influencers who made the idea of doing something relaxing, like taking a bubble bath or wearing a face mask, seem like a step toward responsible adulthood. They promote the idea that these activities push back against a society that demands constant, mindless productivity. Now, hashtag #selfcare has almost 20 million posts on Instagram, featuring inspirational quotes, lattes, steams, spectacularly expensive face creams, and destination eco-spas.
Ironically, what started as a movement to reject social pressure soon became another form of competitive consumerism. The movement’s original emphasis on rejecting the conventional path transformed into a drive towards alternative forms of self-obsession. E-commerce sites are flooded with fidget spinners, jade rollers, floral candles, face masks, adult coloring books, meditation, and essential oils — all propped up by an army of “influencers” trying to out-relax each other.
More importantly, there is little evidence that any of these products — even the ones that aren’t actively harmful — actually work in the way they’re advertised. Beyond the obvious dangers of tainted vape juice sending people to the hospital, “Vitamin Vapes” with names like Vita Stik, BioVape and NutroVape remain controversial. Often with an aura of scientific backing or credibility (but with little to no oversight), companies have hijacked the market. The same goes for slightly less harmful versions of the same trend: Aromatherapy, for instance, is promising but untested.
In fairness though, the vast majority of these self-soothing products currently on the market aren’t going to kill us. For many, thinking that something makes us saner actually makes us feel more sane: a classic placebo effect — backed up by brain-science research. In one study reported in Psychology Today, 40 percent of patients with a social-anxiety disorder who were treated with a placebo over 8-weeks showed a reduction in anxiety when asked to perform a stressful public-speaking task. Such research suggests that if I truly believe that a face treatment reduces my stress, spending $1.79 on a Mango Morning Mask could actually change my brain activity.
Awareness of the scientific facts offers little protection from this trend. Even though we as teenagers read the data and op-eds, we continue to have the attitude that what hasn’t been proven harmful is worth trying. And, in fairness, most of the self-soothing products on the market may do us more good than harm: they create the illusion that all will be fine with the wider world if we achieve inner harmony. There is nothing wrong with a placebo effect if the user is happier, more productive, and unharmed by the treatment.
Teen anxiety isn’t going anywhere, as we face the prospect of more gun violence and a climate apocalypse. Perhaps self-care is just a logical reaction to these threats for most teens. Still, it’s no substitute for science-backed treatments for those who need them most, and it definitely doesn’t solve the deeper issues that we face as a generation. Expecting people to bath-bomb or NutroVape their way to peace of mind as the healthcare system neglects them and seas rise shifts responsibility to young people, while failing to acknowledge the problems that contribute to the teen anxiety epidemic.