Mixed Emotions

Nancy Reagan left an incredible legacy when she passed away recently, particularly in regard to her work for young people. She made huge strides in a key issue facing teens in the 1980s: drug use. It was a growing problem at the time and one that needed immediate attention before it spiraled out of control. When the Reagans entered the White House, teen drug use was near record levels, but when they departed eight years later, it had declined by 47% and continued to drop.

Each new administration develops a program to address issues facing teens—most recently, the Obamas went after childhood obesity—so what is the next concern with teens that the impending administration will need to tackle? There are a range of issues that adults cite regarding teens, from an over-indulgence in video games to narcissism and selfie culture, but these are all indicators of a more serious concern: a lack of emotional intelligence. 

EQ, as it is known, is the skill of recognizing and controlling one’s emotions, particularly as they relate to interpersonal interactions. This skill has been on the decline in the Internet era, as a greater share of these interactions happens with a screen as a buffer. Not having to face the other person in the digital conversation has enabled a decline in empathy and diminished the understanding of how one’s emotional reactions also affect others. For example, young people sometimes don’t realize how the rant they post on Instagram elicits a subsequent emotional reaction in their followers, and the ripple effect that can ensue.



As true digital natives who have used technology nearly from birth, today’s teens are struggling with this concept more than their predecessors did. And with technology now pervasive in schools—which historically have been a key area where young people learned social behaviors—kids today are even further disadvantaged. Teens are feeling this detriment more than their older peers did. We have found that teens are less likely than Millennials to say that their digital relationships are as meaningful as their in-person relationships; this is despite the fact that they’re more likely to have online-only friendships. 

For teens in particular, learning EQ is essential. They are exposed to more sophisticated content at a younger age through the Internet, which provokes strong emotional reactions that they will need to learn how to handle. To that point, 72% of 14 to 18 year olds say that the Internet has made people of their generation grow up faster, our research finds; that compares to 63% of Millennials. Despite needing to be more mature at a younger age, their lack of EQ makes that goal much harder to achieve.

This isn’t just an issue now in their formative years. Diminished EQ will be a life-long issue for teens as it will touch every aspect of their lives. Their romantic relationships will suffer if they are less able to understand and address their emotional responses; their careers could be stunted because advancement requires not only smart networking but also building relationships with co-workers; their friendships will be affected if they aren’t able to show empathy. 

Brands may feel that EQ is a difficult topic to address in marketing or advertising, but many companies are already making inroads. The Branch Out Movement encourages people to get out of their filter bubble by sending members challenges that facilitate conversations. Birch Coffee has small placards with conversation topics available near their registers that patrons can place on their table to indicate that they are open to conversations with random visitors. Brands can also help teens understand their emotions by showing them they are not alone in their feelings. New service Shine Text sends notes of affirmation to young people to assuage their insecurities and to show that the emotions they are feeling are common. 

Brands were quick to jump on the bandwagon when the message was to say “no” to drugs, and they were equally willing to embrace the campaign to address childhood obesity, and, now, they can have a significant impact on teens’ mental wellness by helping them improve their EQ.

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