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There is Hope in a Pandemic of Hopelessness

January 19th, 2023     By Father Steven E. Boes, President and National Executive Director, Boys Town

Acceptance, Communicating with Kids, Connecting with Teens, Crisis, Mental Health, Saving Children, social media, Teen, Teens, Tween, Tweens, Understanding Behavior

At a recent fundraiser that I attended, I was asked, “What is the number one problem facing Boys Town?" I responded that the main problem we face is the same issue that most kids in America are facing. Kids today – our kids – are hurting.  They survived the pandemic, but now they are facing a pandemic of hopelessness.

It is no secret that the majority of our Boys Town kids have experienced trauma before coming to our campus. We saw a 50% increase in expressions of trauma during COVID. Suicide ideation increased by 150% during this same period and national statistics mirror this same increase, especially in kids who are hard of hearing, deaf or neurologically different.

So, what has caused these alarming, skyrocketing statistics? The pandemic timeframe correlates directly with the rapid increase in social media use among American teens and the rise in cyberbullying. Today, over half of teens report being cyberbullied in the last year and 20% have felt suicidal as a result.

While we didn't have social media when I was a kid, I remember being bullied at school. What saved me is that I was able to recover from the horror of bullying at the end of each day, when I went home to my loving family. Now, the abuse follows teens wherever they go and is present at every moment of the day on their cell phones.

Recently, my niece shared a story about one of her male classmates, who was a bit socially awkward. It seems that this student's cyberbullies created a fake social media account for him and now use it pretending to be him to solicit sex from underage kids. They think it's funny and their anonymity has allowed them to bully this kid unmercifully and face no consequences.

Bullying is on the rise as many preventative factors that once helped to mitigate the effects have weakened. Parental attachment isn't as strong as kids spend more time on their phones and less time talking with their parents. Also, the practice of religion is down since the pandemic, as well as teen participation in pro-social behaviors like volunteer activities or school clubs. To make matters worse, the availability of social supports to help kids when they are bullied are in short supply. Since the pandemic, quality, science-based counseling, mentoring and school-based anti-bullying efforts have been overwhelmed or shut down completely.

So, what is Boys Town doing to fight this recent pandemic of hopelessness? We take these statistics on increasing trauma symptoms very seriously and we are giving our kids on campus additional help. We are working to put more Family-Teachers in all our Family Homes, and we are in the process of building a new school on campus to better serve our kids. Through our Successful Futures program, we also are providing more help to our kids after graduation.

We also want to help hurting kids nationwide, so we are making our Common-Sense Parenting® program and elements of our Boys Town Education Model® for schools available online to greatly increase our reach to kids. We also are investing in research and programs that benefit neurologically diverse kids, as well as kids who are deaf or hard of hearing. We want to better understand the developing teenage brain, how trauma affects it and how to measure treatment effectiveness.

Our goal in these efforts is to offer hope to kids who are feeling hopeless. Our research shows that there are ways to build up hope in kids. We start with asking them to work on three goals. At first, these goals are realistic to attain and short-term, and, as they experience success with these goals, they gain more hope and their goals get bolder. Eventually, they are setting big life goals like going to college or learning a trade. We know that when kids are motivated, learn new skills and have a plan for growth and success, hope sprouts and grows stronger. Once a child has hope, joy increases, and anything is possible!

Blessings to you,
Father Steve Boes

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