The last five to 10 years have seen an enormous spike in screen time for adolescents and teens. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of teenagers reported having access to smartphones in 2018, and 45 percent of them said that they are online almost constantly. During the same time, there was also a major increase in young people with diagnosed mental health issues. 

Now, nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, teens are using the internet for school, extracurricular activities and their main social outlet. According to a recent survey of 3,000 parents conducted by Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, during COVID, 63 percent of parents are seeing an increase in their teen’s technology use. 

Young people are relying heavily on screens to cope with the pandemic. For some, spending time playing video games and chatting online, is a positive – a way to stay connected to friends. Others are dealing with the negative aspects of the internet, including online toxicity and bullying.  

Screen time and mental health

It’s too early to draw any conclusions about how the increased dependence on technology in 2020 will impact the mental health of our young people in the long run.

It’s a complicated question, according to Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media.

“Mental health disorders emerge from a complex set of social, genetic, and experiential factors, which have varying influence across adolescents’ development and situations,” Robb said in a recent interview. “Several large studies of young people have found correlations between heavy technology use and unhappiness. But: correlation is not causation. It’s possible that the effect goes in the other direction. It could be that unhappy people spend more time on social media or use social media in more problematic ways,” Robb said.

In either case – causation or correlation – it is clear that there are potential dangers associated with excessive time on the web for adolescents and teens already struggling with mental health issues.  

A 2019 study published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that for every additional hour young people spend on social media or watch television, the severity of depressive symptoms they experience goes up.

Social media and gaming, especially, may also disrupt activities that have a positive impact on mental health such as exercising and sleeping, while increasing exposure to critical and toxic influences. Tragically there are situations where young people self-harm or take their life through suicide after being cyber bullied. Mental health professionals frequently see young people who express unhealthy needs for approval or attention online.

The good news is parents can make a difference. 

It’s important to keep in mind that all screen time is not equal. Parents should supervise their children’s online activities and evaluate whether they are enhancing social support and facilitating social connectedness versus negative interactions that focus on social comparisons.

Parents can help their children make the most of the positive experiences – that support good mental health – and avoid unhealthy habits that can put them at risk. Encourage:

  • Healthy sleep habits. Get your child into a regular bedtime routine.
  • Daily moderate exercise. The CDC recommends teens aim for at least one hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week.
  • Self-monitoring. Help your child turn off their device when they start having negative interactions.
  • Open communication. Your child should know that they can talk to you if they are encountering online toxicity. 
  • A daily schedule. Help your child create a schedule they can stick to, with breaks from their device.
  • Tech mindfulness. Hours can go by playing video games before your teen even knows it. Make them aware.

Finally, the most effective strategy may be modeling the screen time behavior you want to see your kids following. Think about putting down the phone, stepping away from the computer and taking a walk around the block.

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