The Health of Millennials (and those coming next) Can Benefit from Lessons of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

As "Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" celebrates the life and work of Fred Rogers, we can look to Rogers's work for lessons on building a healthier world for our youth. (Photo: Fotos International/Courtesy of Getty Images)

The Health of Millennials (and those coming next) Can Benefit from Lessons of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

Declining physical and mental health is linked to social isolation, which is tied to atrophied social skills, practices, and values that were staples of Rogers’ programming.

A recent Blue Cross-Blue Shield study of millennials health revealed startling declines in the health of younger generations, who suffer higher rates of major depression, hypertension, hyperactivity, type-II diabetes, and endocrine disorders, among others. Considering the social conditions shaping these trends--including precarious work, intensifying academic competition and high-stakes testing, consumerism, exaggerated digital media environments, and climate change--the health effects for the Z generation will only get worse.

Health and wellness is linked to our social and physical environments, which are shaped by social policies and practices on which we must focus efforts address this health crisis. As "Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" celebrates the life and work of Fred Rogers, we can look to Rogers's work for lessons on building a healthier world for our youth

Some highlights include:

1) Make time for play: Rogers learned from child psychologist Margaret McFarland that "for children, play is serious learning." He regularly invited his young audience to join him in the "land of make believe," modeling play and encouraging children to engage their innate creative tendencies. Conversations with make-believe neighbors opened possibilities for imaginative thinking not possible with today's screen-based play. Researchers have shown important links between unstructured play and cognitive development and physical health, and educators at all levels are noting serious deficits in students' critical thinking skills and creativity.

2) Engage in active listening: Rogers's program was so popular because of his unusual skill at communicating with children. He listened attentively to them and could read the fear, excitement, or confusion they struggled to express. While Rogers was unusually gifted at this kind of listening, we all need such skills for healthy relationships.

Excessive screen time deprives developing minds of opportunities to cultivate listening and communications skills. Learning requires thoughtful, engaged listening, but digital dependence and multi-tasking tendencies obstruct this, constraining our capacity to express and manage thoughts and emotions effectively. Declines in empathy, linked with screen time, is one worrisome result.

3) Slow down For Rogers, "hurrying up and using a lot of shortcuts doesn't get us very far at all." Neighborhood life was not about accomplishing many things quickly--unless you're Mr. McFeely delivering the things neighbors need--but rather, it was the quality of social interactions that made time there special.

Slowing down his speech helped Rogers ensure that all viewers could process and reflect on his messages. Nobody was too busy to make time to talk and answer questions in an attentive and thoughtful way. Slowing down and cultivating greater mindfulness of what we see and do in our daily routines can help reduce anxiety and its physical manifestations, such as hypertension and poor nutrition.

4) Cultivate community: For Rogers, "Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people."There was room for everyone in Rogers' inclusive and mutually supportive neighborhood, and the community shaped who members were as individuals. Neighbors shared concerns and frustrations with one another, and they worked together to solve individual and collective problems. Nobody was deemed weak for needing to ask others for help, and membership in the community also brought responsibilities. Rogers worked to demonstrate for children how such two-way relationships--community-building--work.

5) Neighbors include non-human beings: As Rogers reminded his viewers, "There is something fancy about every ... person, each fish, each bird, each living creature." Recognizing children's innate connections to animals and nature, and the importance of environmental health to human health, Rogers ensured that his framing of the neighborhood included non-human beings. We must be good neighbors to all: "If you were a fish, you wouldn't want somebody dumping garbage into your home."

Researchers now appreciate humans' inherent need for connections with other life forms, or biophilia. Not only is connection to nature important for individual well-being, but it is also essential for our ability to be good neighbors with our Earth. Appreciating the complexities of the natural world and our impacts on it requires knowledge of this world. As children become more distracted by screens and enjoy fewer opportunities to explore outdoors, they suffer growing rates of "nature deficit disorder."

5) Find good role models: The characters Rogers brought into his neighborhood were designed to help "children and their families...know that there are many constructive ways to express who they are and how they feel." Conversations centered on the diverse things people did and often stressed how these were helpful to others. When Hall-of-Famer Lynn Swann visited the neighborhood, it was to share his ballet skills. The people and careers Rogers lifted up were valued not for their fame or how much money they generated, but for their value to people and community.

Growth and corporate concentration in mass media have generated unprecedented competition for people's attention. Messages targeting youth operate 24/7 and encourage them to find role models in celebrities more than in people they actually know. Mass media also encourages consumerism and the glamorizing of lucrative careers. Whereas children once aspired to careers in nursing, teaching, or firefighting, now they wish to be CEOs or millionaires.

6) Screen-free communication If Mr. Rogers was programming today, would there be smart phones in his neighborhood? Rogers knew that direct, face-to-face exchanges between children and adults were the foundation for joy, learning, and creative problem-solving, and they were the core of his program. While noting, "No computer will ever take the place of wooden toys or building blocks," he did not see these as mutually exclusive.

Rogers would have been attentive to emerging evidence about effects of screen time on young people's mental and physical development. Today, young (and older) people spend an average of more than seven hours a day looking at screens. Psychologist Sherry Turkle shows how increasing screen time undermines young people's social development, making them less confident and capable of interactive face-to-face or even verbal telephone communication. Declines in empathy and compassion linked to screen time help account today's problematic social and political polarization.

We see these effects in our work with university students and entry-level employees: the manners and communications skills once taken for granted are often not nurtured in young people before they go into the world outside their immediate families. Although new forms of communication have value, we worry about their effects on longstanding social norms, conventions, and conflict management tools developed over many generations of human evolution.

Time spent cultivating real-time relationships helps children learn to create and maintain the meaningful friendships and adult relationships they need to thrive. Online "friends" can't provide a warm shoulder for support, and a screen can't take the place of offline human interactions.

The Millennial Health Study is a wake-up call: Young people need to be encouraged to develop effective communications skills and connections to communities. Declining physical and mental health is linked to social isolation, which is tied to atrophied social skills, practices, and values that were staples of Rogers' programming.

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