As the pandemic pushes kids' lives even more online, their mental health depends on parental support -- and a lot less anti-tech talk.
Before the pandemic hit, kids' mental health picture was worrisome, with anxiety, depression, and the youth suicide rate on the rise for the last decade, especially for girls and kids of color. Now that our kids' worlds have been turned upside down, we can only guess what the long-term effects of this disruption will be on their well-being. But while some researchers -- and many attention-grabbing news articles -- before looked at screens and social media as possible causes of the mental health problem (and found scant evidence), now we can see even more clearly how essential screens are for education, entertainment, and social connection. In Common Sense's new report, Tweens, Teens, Tech, and Mental Health, we examined the existing research on kids and mental health and found that, with a few exceptions, we need to look beyond screens and social media for the causes of this mental health crisis. And we need to reframe our perspective on digital tools -- especially now -- if we're going to support our kids through this difficult phase in our collective lives.
What's causing tween and teen mental health problems?
Frustratingly, we don't have a clear picture of what precisely is causing the recent uptick in mental health issues for tweens and teens. But we do have evidence that shows a few commonalities for kids with serious mental health problems, including:
- Childhood history of trauma
- Family history of mental illness
- Marginalization due to factors including sexual identity
- High family conflict
- Lack of access to mental health resources
And while social media use is not on that list, there is some evidence that tween and young teen girls who use social media may have a heightened risk for depressive symptoms. However, the association is small and suggests that depressive symptoms predict social media use, not the other way around.
What can we do to protect tween and teen mental health?
While there's plenty we don't know, we do know one thing for sure: Kids who feel safe, supported, accepted, and understood are better positioned to weather difficult times. So when it comes to screen time, our research supports flipping the script: Focus less on how much time kids are spending online and shift your thinking toward how you can help your kid stay emotionally connected to friends, school, clubs, and other relationships, online and offline. These social-emotional bonds are their lifeblood right now, and your support is critical.
For parents dealing with more serious issues, know that there is support out there. Use this guide for tools your family can use to find resources for a range of issues. Also, the tips below can help support and guide your kids during uncertain times.
Steer kids toward positive, healthy online interactions. Keep an eye on the apps, sites, and games they use and ask questions about the online environments they hang out in. How do they make your kid feel? Ask who they follow on social media and what they like about them. Discuss what they should do when they encounter negative stuff such as kids acting inappropriately or other users spouting hate speech. Tell them they can always come to you when something upsets them -- even if they went somewhere they weren't supposed to.
Reserve judgments about screen time. Your kid's tech schedule is going to look a lot different for the foreseeable future. While it's important to keep life balanced with offline and online activities, know that what kids are doing on screens is more important than the time they spend. And in fact, conflicts over screen time can actually be more harmful to kids' mental health than screen time itself. Help kids choose high-quality, age-appropriate media and -- when you can -- watch and play with them.
Be prepared for kids to enter social media earlier. Whether it's social apps like Messenger Kids or video-chat platforms like Zoom, kids will be interacting online a lot younger than you might have planned. Make sure to choose apps with care, monitor interactions, and use privacy settings to help kids stay safe and feel secure. Some kids will need more care and consideration around social media. If your kid has already experienced anxiety, you might want to hold off, provide extra support (such as trial runs), and/or supervise closely. Vulnerable kids -- those who are struggling emotionally, socially, or for other reasons -- will need more hand-holding.
Ask what you are shutting out when you turn off your child's smartphone. Many families have conflicts over screen use -- it's par for the course. But when the end result is taking away your kid's phone as a consequence for their behavior, that tactic can have a more severe impact on your kid than you realize. It might be the right decision, but if your kid uses the device for mental health support (which includes positive connections with friends), you may need to determine if they can do that without the phone, or provide some other supportive measures.
Identify when social media creates real-world stress. Be on the lookout for an increase in online exchanges and whether they are spilling over into offline problems with friends and family.
Pay close attention if your kid is already struggling offline. Be alert to warning signs, however subtle, of emotional issues, including friendship drama, changes in behavior, and acting out. Early adolescence -- age 10–14 -- is a time when mental health problems such as depression and anxiety often first begin to emerge. And some kids are just more vulnerable to social conflict like criticism, comparison, and bullying. In addition to in-person support, digital tools, including mindfulness apps and telehealth services, can help.
For more tips and resources like these to help your family get set up for distance learning, check out our Back to School Guide at Wide Open School.
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