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What’s Coming Across Our Children’s Screens?

Last year when our Strategic Planning Team met to set our district priorities, there was a lot of discussion around social media and its impact on youth mental health. Unlike our teenage years, young people today have unfiltered access to a vast array of images and information. This unprecedented exposure is influencing youth mental well-being across our country. Multiple studies have drawn a clear connection between the decline in U.S. mental health indicators for youth and the rising use of social media and screens since 2009.

Social media is not all bad, it can connect us in ways never before possible. Still, many parents can attest to the challenges teenagers encounter, from struggles with attention and anxiety to the ever-looming fear of missing out (FOMO). Teens constantly grapple with the pressure of comparing themselves to others in terms of body image, happiness, and lifestyle. 

The American Association of Pediatrics also has highlighted the risk of digital footprints. “The main risks to pre-adolescents and adolescents online today are risks from each other, risks of improper use of technology, lack of privacy, sharing too much information, or posting false information about themselves or others. These types of behavior put their privacy at risk.”

Teen life has always presented challenges, but it’s especially challenging today because our children are living a very different life than their parents did growing up. At a time when teens are vulnerable to social influence, social media has altered perceptions of reality and skewed social feedback.

“The adolescent brain is kind of like a car that — when it comes to the desire for social feedback — has a hypersensitive gas pedal, with relatively low-functioning brakes,” said Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer of the American Psychological Association.

So, what can families do to help their teens navigate this digital landscape and protect their mental health? Here are the top four pieces of advice from public health and educational experts:

Engage in Conversation: Instead of outright banning devices, open up conversations about them. Encourage your children to talk about their online experiences. Understand the apps and platforms they use and why they find them appealing. By showing genuine interest, you can establish a more open line of communication. Ask for a tour of their feed.

Regular Check-Ins: Make it a routine to check in with your teens. Ask them how they're feeling about their online interactions and the content they encounter. Create a space and relationship where they can express their concerns and feelings without judgment. Suggest journaling, drawing, or other forms of expression as well. Not everything needs to be posted online.

Monitor Screen Time: Have your teen check the battery-use app on their device, and keep an eye on how much time they spend on social media or gaming. Engage in discussions about the value of time and help them prioritize activities that contribute to happiness and well-being. Encourage them to make lists of things they're grateful for in the real world and alternatives to screen time. Have they ever found themselves asking, “Where did the time go?” Ultimately, it's about raising awareness of the choices they make.

Set Clear Boundaries for when, where, and how much teens have access to their phones or devices. Self-discipline is a skill to be learned. If they set a goal to limit time on one activity, how can they monitor progress toward that goal? When and where might other limits be helpful?  The U.S. Surgeon General suggests keeping bedrooms device-free for at least an hour before bedtime and through the night. The presence of a phone can disrupt a good night's sleep, which is crucial for your child's overall well-being. 

 

Advice From Teens

Ask your teen what advice they might give others about health boundaries. They know when social media is hurting more than it's helping. They will likely generate some healthy ideas. I recently read an article where teens had three suggestions.

Do Not Disturb. One teen suggested setting “do not disturb” for everyone except mom or family. She recognized the urge to constantly check her phone for messages and intentionally minimized that temptation. She also moved her messaging app to an app library folder to reduce the visibility of notifications. Silencing notifications helps reduce distraction.

Actively Curate Your Feed. Use tools like "not interested" or “blocking” for content that makes you feel bad. It's not about being secretive or anti-social; it's about safeguarding your digital space and peace of mind. Actively follow accounts that are uplifting or inspirational. If teens find themselves in a cycle where they are making unhealthy comparisons or having negative thoughts, suggest “unfollowing” or taking short breaks from social media apps until they feel better. Sometimes, deleting the app from your device for a week can be like taking a healthy vacation, without needing to delete the account altogether.

Get Outdoors. If teens sense anxiety, depression, or too much comparison, it might be a good time to unplug and get outside. Studies have demonstrated that spending time outdoors, even just two hours per week, can significantly improve both physical and mental health. So, encourage your teens to disconnect from their screens and enjoy the great outdoors.

 

As we guide our children through the complex world of social media, let's not forget to reflect on our own behavior. Kids often imitate adults in their lives, so modeling healthy habits for our kids at an early age is helpful. The saying "Be where your feet are" is a poignant reminder to be present with the people physically around us. Make an effort to put your phones away during meals, social interactions, and when driving kids around. By doing so, we can set a powerful example of responsible and mindful technology use.

In a rapidly changing world, let's embrace the challenge of guiding our youth through the digital age with empathy, understanding, and a commitment to their well-being. Together, we can ensure that what's coming across our children's screens is a source of inspiration and growth, rather than a cause for concern.

 


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