Here's Why You Shouldn't Tell Your Teenager to Sit Up Straight

When I look back on my teenage years, the feeling is quite mixed. Along with the fond memories, ardent friendships and abandon of responsibility, I can’t help but reflect on what a terribly awkward time it was. That awkwardness was never lost on adults who liked to chime in and try to illustrate how well they could relate. I remember cringing whenever I was told, "You kids care so much about what your friends think of you," or explanations on how we sought approval from others. I didn't think they had a clue about my life and it just sounded like ‘old people’ talk.

Recently, I saw groups of teenagers dressed up for their school prom, parading around town in their formal attire. The young ladies, giggling nervously; the young men, galumphing behind them. I could now see them through the lens of an 'old person' and it was painfully transparent to watch how much validation they sought for every word or gesture they made. Yet, beyond their bumbling, there was one thing that stood out far more than their flagrant awkwardness. Not one of these youth stood tall. It was almost as though they were deliberately trying to shrink themselves to appear smaller and less visible.

While the obvious reason would be their blistering insecurity, there are several other culprits at work. First and foremost, teenagers today have not adopted the same inclination towards physical activity as their predecessors from 20 years ago. According to an article from the Journal of Pediatric Health Care “Many people assume that children are naturally active and participate readily in physical activities that lead to and help them maintain high levels of fitness during their early years. However, society has changed to encourage a more sedentary lifestyle. Children’s activity levels decline through the teenage years, with girls being less active than boys. Today there is a greater availability of sedentary pursuits that can lure children away from physical activities.” If the body is already used to slumping over for extensive periods of time throughout the day, why wouldn't that posture also transfer to standing and walking?

In contrast to my generation that spent hours walking and talking with friends around the neighborhood, today’s youth would rather talk to all of their friends—at once—on different social media platforms, without even having to get out of their chair. And while over half of their waking hours are spent in sedentary behaviors, screen time doesn’t stop once the lights go out. A 2010 Pew Study found that more than 4 in 5 teens with cell phones sleep with the phone on or near the bed and according to researchers from JFK Medical Center, teens send an average of 34 texts a night after going to bed. The latter study found that half of the kids kept awake by electronic media suffered from a host of mood and cognitive problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression and learning difficulties.

This is further compounded by a recent study by Dr. Erik Peper which found that it was significantly easier to recall/access negative memories in the collapsed position than in the erect position and it was easier to recall/access positive images in the erect position than in the collapsed position.

With all of this research, is it any wonder why teenagers might look awkward and not be in the best mood? Of course not. A common misconception of poor posture among teenagers is attributing it to growing pains, or insecurity. In reality, lifestyle choices are a much bigger influence on postural health. How can anyone stand tall or radiate a joie de vivre when they’re spending most of their lives sitting hunched over?!

What can we do to help them? What can we say to a teen, the next time we see them slouching in their chair, or walking slumped over as they're looking down at their phone? The most important bit of advice I can give you, is NOT to tell them to sit or stand up straight.

Huh? What? Why? It's true, I just gave a sermon about the detriments of sitting with a rounded back for the majority of the day. I also provided research that supported that point. The clear implication is that teenagers are at risk for becoming a generation of grumpy hunchbacks. But telling them to "Sit up straight!" is not the solution and will only do the following things: