With technology continuing to play a huge role in our lives and the lives of our children, here’s how to protect their mental health online.
Since the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns, our relationships with technology have evolved. In a time of uncertainty and social isolation, technology has provided a sense of normalcy and structure to many. From the way we worked, attended school, entertained ourselves, and built community with friends and family, we were all online.
Like many parents during the pandemic, I’ve been tasked with balancing working from home and caring for my teens. Noticing a rise not only in my internet use, but also in my child’s, I realized that parenting had changed. I’ve seen my family’s use of technology shift into new areas — like the morning start or the dinner table, or how we all watch something on different devices instead of a shared TV show — and our times without it start to feel like withdrawal. While parenting has been and always will be a juggling act, it now appears that a healthy balance with technology is becoming more and more difficult to manage.
So, as we enter 2023 and get closer to “normal,” questions remain: How does this continued rise in technology use affect the mental health of young people? How can parents best prepare themselves for intervention?
To better understand family and youth Internet use during the pandemic, researchers from the Child Mind Institute – a member of the Morgan Stanley Children’s Mental Health Alliance, which I lead – conducted a national multipart survey, surveying more than 1,000 American parents with children ages 9 to 15. the Latest study I looked at comments from July 21 to August 17, 2022. The goal? Understand parental attitudes toward Internet use, family use patterns, and potential risks that may contribute to what is known as problematic Internet use (PIU)—defined as Internet usage habits that negatively affect someone’s quality of life—in children.
Mood shifts, lack of focus, and detachment are common in PIU. Other signs include related behaviors such as substance abuse, loss of sleep or interest in relationships or activities, neglecting homework, going online to avoid unpleasant feelings, and acting out when internet time is limited.
The survey also highlights some positive outcomes of using the internet during the pandemic. For example, nearly half of respondents (46%) of parents said the Internet increased bonding within their nuclear families, and more than half of respondents (56%) felt that the Internet increased communication with their extended family.
However, parents were aware of the risks associated with Internet use. Most parents (77%) agreed that children can be addicted to the Internet and were concerned about various issues, such as cyberbullying (53%) and the content available to their children (67%).
In addition, nearly a third of parents (32%) report that they are often distracted by the Internet while spending time with their children. As a working mom, this is something I’ve had to contend with on my own behavior. When an email pings during family time, I feel like I’m drifting away from the conversation and thinking, “Maybe I should check that out.” It’s a byproduct of our home lives and home offices intertwining with each other during the pandemic – and I’m trying hard to fix it. By setting healthy boundaries, I can be present for my child and be an example of how he too can begin to prioritize his mental well-being, even as a teenager.
Faced with such statements, how can parents respond? While reducing internet use and technology time seem like easy solutions, they are not always a realistic approach to the current state of our world. Of note, 59% of parents reported becoming more lax about internet use during the pandemic.
However, the mental health crisis in young people is widening, and it is becoming clear that problematic internet use is one of many drivers. We must work together to help and protect our children, especially in cyberspace.
But there is a positive side: the majority (82%) of parents feel comfortable talking about Internet use with their children. I encourage all parents to talk to their children about being safe online – both physically and emotionally.
Here are some ways parents and caregivers can do this:
- monitor: You know your child best. Watch for extreme mood and behavioral changes. For example, is your son rather talkative, but now you can’t get a word out of him at all? Are they usually more conservative and critical now? Is their school’s performance out of the ordinary? Are there changes in appetite or sleep patterns? Watch and note the patterns and listen to your instincts if you feel something isn’t right.
- accidentBe proactive in talking to your child about mental health. Check their emotions and remind them that feelings of challenge are normal. Give them space to express what they’re going through in a non-judgmental environment and let them know that it’s okay to not be okay.
- Model good habitsDedicating time and space to your own needs is an important part of meeting your children’s needs. When your child sees that you prioritize self-care, he learns to do the same. Talk about how technology affects your mental health and show them how you create boundaries in your own life.
- building the societyAs a parent or caregiver, it is important to create a support system for your child. Whether it’s another family member, their teacher, or your neighbor, they can also help recognize signs of mental health issues in your child or they can act as another adult in their world. Ensure that your child feels safe with these individuals and encourage them to reach out if they need extra support, especially when you are not around.
- Watch and talk – againCheck in with your child regularly — not just when something is wrong — and make sure they know who to turn to if they’re struggling. This can also help emphasize that this is an ongoing process, rather than a one-time thing.
Technology and the use of the Internet will continue to be a part of our daily lives. By understanding the mental and emotional well-being of our children and providing them with the tools to use the Internet safely, we can create a brighter future for the next generation.
If you are concerned that a child or youth is in immediate danger of self-harm (especially if the student mentions suicide), follow the mandatory reporter’s guidelines and call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.