‘They just are afraid’: Psychologist says teens in a darker place, driving violence

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Teenagers today are angrier, more afraid and more socially isolated than they were pre-pandemic, an Orlando-based psychologist said, driving a string of violent incidents in and around Central Florida schools.

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A video of a bullying incident in October blew up the internet over the weekend, flooding the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office and school district with inquiries. Three students are facing charges. More than a dozen other students from Orange and Seminole counties are also in trouble after fights broke out at Oviedo High School and Dr. Phillips High School earlier this month.

“We’re just seeing a lot more fear, anxiety, depression, PTSD, people skipping school because they just are afraid,” Jim West, of Total Life Counseling, said.

West said his office is seeing 50% more patients than they were before the pandemic, and the patients are coming in needing more therapy. He said most were afraid of being bullied, talked about or teased online, and what could happen when they encountered the bullies in person.

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“Kids are bringing weapons to school to protect themselves or protect their friends,” he said, recalling that one of his patients brought a knife to their classes last week.

West blamed many of the issues on social distancing, the pandemic-era policy enacted to keep COVID-19 from spreading. He called it a mistake, saying while physical distancing was important, keeping students home made them more invested in their online profiles which were full of harassment and bullying.

“They got behind socially, emotionally, I think that’s just that they created this perfect storm, this catalyst,” he explained. “That’s all this anxiety, intention and depression. Kids are just so on edge.”

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While he said he was behind efforts to toughen cyberbullying laws and hold social media companies accountable for the environments they create, he said parents have an important role to play, regardless of whether their child is the victim or the bully.

He added that parents also need to be more receptive to the idea that any child, including theirs, could be the aggressor.

“Just be open to your kids could be engaging in these bullying behaviors and get help for them,” he said.

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Adam Poulisse, WFTV.com

Adam Poulisse joined WFTV in November 2019.