When I can’t get my smartphone to do what I need it to, my go-to solution is to ask one of my three daughters for help. One of them is almost always able to resolve my issue without much effort — surely a result of growing up with digital technology.
These are the times we live in, when children and young adults can proficiently navigate many forms of technology from very early on. (Have you ever seen how many apps there are for babies?) A 2018 study showed that 95 percent of teens (ages 13 – 17) in the U.S. have access to a smartphone, and 45 percent say they’re online almost constantly.
With the proliferation of technology — and social media specifically — it’s natural to wonder how it could affect our kids as they mature, both in their physical and mental health.
Technology and a Child’s Mental Health
While it’s a newer topic of research, some studies are showing that excessive technology may have a negative impact on the mental and emotional well-being of children. In fact, possible connections are being drawn between technology use and disorders like attention-deficient hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, and depression.
Social media, which has evolved substantially in recent years, may be more to blame than other forms of technology for anxiety and depression specifically. Many kids are following the social trend of engaging from behind their screen, where they are able to hide behind a curated profile and persona. They are making superficial connections with their peers and spending less time developing meaningful relationships. This circumstance leaves kids feeling lonely and isolated, craving interpersonal connection.
Help Kids Use Technology Safely
We can probably all agree that technology is here to stay. So how can we protect our kids’ mental health in a digital world?
Here are some ways to helps kids use technology safely and healthfully:
Be part of their virtual world
Whether your kids are into gaming, social media, YouTube, or general Web surfing, it’s critical to be involved in their life online. Keep track of what websites they visit, whom they talk to (friends or strangers?), and apps they download. This includes knowing their passwords for email and social media. In addition, observe how they’re interacting with others online.
- What image does your child portray? On social media, does your child look, talk, and act like him or herself? Does he or she seemed focused on visual appearances?
- Are there signs of cyberbullying? Young adults are more greatly impacted by the opinions of their peers than adults, so it’s important to pay attention for signs of cyberbullying. And unfortunately, parents and teachers can’t always detect it to stop it because they’re not in the loop of what’s happening in social media.
Limit tech during family time
It’s okay to embrace and use technology safely, but family time (without devices) is key! I can’t overstress the value of connecting with your kids face-to-face without the distraction of technology or social media. This is especially true at the dinner table or during quality time together (e.g., in the car or on vacation). Make it a household rule that smartphones and tablets won’t be used at the dinner table or in bed at night.
Reinforce and encourage personal interaction
Also encourage your kids to spend time face-to-face with their friends. Kids crave connection, and if they primarily socialize online, they’ll get a false sense of connection that can lead to feelings of social isolation. In addition, kids can hide behind their screens, making it more difficult for them to do things like build good relationships or speak publicly.
Watch for addictive behavior
Being obsessed with how many “likes” a picture got or what everyone is saying on Twitter could be signs of a problem. Technology addiction is categorized as a behavioral addiction (like gambling), and some kids may begin to crave the reward (which is actually dopamine release) that comes from the attention they get on social media. Look for signs that your kids can’t limit their use of social media and technology, and consider whether it is having a negative impact on their school, family, or social life.
Of course, the best way to teach your kids how to use technology and social media responsibly is to model the desired behavior yourself. Hold yourself accountable to the same rules you expect of your children, and the whole family may improve their mental well-being.
What to Do If You Are Concerned
There is a growing body of information and resources about technology and a child’s mental health. Here are a few that may be useful:
- The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a Family Media Plan, which can be a useful resource when deciding an appropriate amount of media for your family to consume.
- The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recently published a free pediatric mental health webinar series that provides useful information.
- ConnectSafely.org is a non-profit group that offers research-based safety tips, parents’ guidebooks, advice, news and commentary on all aspects of tech use and policy.
If you are worried about your child’s mental health or online activity, talk to your child’s doctor. Keep in mind that behavioral health treatment is included in most health plans as an essential health benefit.