Digital Realities and Mental Health with Tweens and Teens

Monday, November 13, 2023

When it comes to smartphones, unease often underpins the experience of modern-day parenting. Our kids have seamlessly integrated smartphones, social media platforms, and gaming hubs into their daily lives, serving as primary tools for communication and connectivity. While some parents struggle with understanding how to make a comment or post a photo, our kids are whipping them out left and right, without a second thought. Yet, this digital world, while offering numerous benefits, has left parents and guardians staring into the Pandora’s box of our kids' screen-centric lives, evoking a sense of apprehension and fear among many.

This fear parents experience is amplified by the frequent alarm ringing headlines and articles spotlighting the negative repercussions of digital technologies, which fuel the anxiety. Sure, many online spaces aren't necessarily built for our online wellbeing (but there's a definite movement towards providing more of them such as Daily Haloha, Headspace and Calm), and they can stir up bad days for everyone, based on our actual physical lives and what's happening in our lives. Feeling down, angry or sad, we might find ourselves attracted to that kind of content and even engage in negative commenting. Feeling happy, inspired and excited, you might find a very different experience online. 

Let's pause. The narrative isn't just about the hazards or detrimental effects of digital media. The digital age has created an echo chamber where negative headlines fuel parental concerns, sometimes with inconsistent research findings. This influence can significantly impact our behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions towards technology, skewing our responses when reporting digital behaviors. I talk about this a lot, because let's face many of us have the time to really dig through the research samples, questions asked, demographics, and so forth. Most read the summary, or even just the headline, and form their opinion. Clickbait news and negative headlines win, overshadowing actual gaps in research and findings. (If you'd like to look through some research, I've included it down below).

There's one company out there that is about parent education when it comes to the online world for kids. Every ounce of content I see is based in fear and they basically say only bad things happen online. We know that's not true, just as we know bad things can happen with almost anything in life. But why don't we educate our tweens, teens and parents from a different angle, one of control, agency and positive habit building? Why not teach parents how to have conversations with their tweens and teens prior to getting a device or once they already have? Let's provide tips, ideas and resources for parents who HAVE provided a device, and for tweens and teens who HAVE an online life. Fear isn't doing anything to help us move forward, and it's certainly not helping our kids move forward in this digital age.

The correlation between mental health issues and social media use is undeniable, but it’s far from the complete story that we are seemingly getting via one headline or a few graphs. Mental health issues are complex and multi-faceted. They don't stem solely from screen time; rather, they’re influenced by a variety of underlying factors such as a lack of parent or guardian involvement, prior mental health issues, family life, pre-existing conditions, or the absence of a trusted adult figure to confide in. There's so many others, but the key to understanding is, there are a lot of underlying circumstances happening in the lives of many. And yes, social media can be a magnifying glass to some of them.

As such, it's critical to differentiate between correlation and causation. Instead of simply asking, “Do screens cause mental health issues in our tweens and teens?” it's more pertinent to ask, “Why do some tweens and teens thrive online while others struggle in the digital space?” Social media, smartphones, and gaming consoles often serve as amplifiers, either intensifying pre-existing issues or diminishing their impact. These technologies are part of a complex, interconnected network of factors that shape mental health and resilience. That's why I am such a huge advocate of talking with your kids and keeping the conversations open, building trust and being that person they can come to. Knowing your child's emotions on a day to day basis without the phone, is hugely important. Are they struggling anywhere? Do they have anxiety, concerns or relationship struggles in their physical life? It's critical to have support networks to help shape a more positive online journey.

Amidst these complexities, it’s important to recognize that technology won't diminish. Overly strict restrictions might inadvertently impede the development of essential skills and valuable connections for our children. It's about creating a healthy digital environment that encourages a balanced approach, guidance, and respect for individual autonomy. By fostering this approach, children can develop crucial skills and form meaningful connections while navigating the digital realm.

Research to dig into (with a grain of salt and a critical eye): 

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