How do we protect our digital kids?

Jules Rosen
Dr. Jules Rosen

Around 2010, therapists and counselors in high schools and college campuses around the country started to see upward trends in depression and anxiety in youth. Teen suicide rates have also increased.

These disturbing trends seemingly coincide with the availability and use of online platforms and media. Are the trends in increasing mental health problems and social media use merely coincidental or related?

A recent study of about 500,000 high school and college students in the United States alerted our communities that adolescents who spend more time on smartphones and other screens could be at higher risk for depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s believed the findings could be applied to younger children, too.

Information regarding each teen’s digital, social media and television use as well as homework, sports and exercise, religious activities and face-to-face socialization hours per week was gathered. The analysis shows an association between time spent on social media with depression and suicidal-related behavior. Girls were at higher risk, meaning they were most likely to increase their odds of depression the more time they spent online. What’s not clear is if time spent on social media is detrimental in and of itself or it’s exposure to such content as bullying or rejection that’s associated with depression and suicide.

With smartphones, tablets and laptops a basic part of everyday life, what should parents do? Putting restrictions on daily screen time could reduce risk for some teens. But for others, social media could offer a safe way to connect to other teens with similar interests who aren’t readily available close by.

Although excessive screen time appears to present a risk factor, it’s only half of the story. The study also found activities that don’t involve social media or television were associated with a decreased risk of depressive symptoms. In professional parlance, these are called “protective factors.”

Protective factors include face-to-face interaction; such activities as team sports, clubs and hanging out with friends; religious beliefs; exercise; and (sorry, kids) hours spent doing homework. The importance of constructive family engagement as a protective factor can’t be understated, including meaningful time together, consistent discipline and managing marital and other discord in the home.

Regular family dinners and engaging in conversation without cell phone interruption offers a powerful start.  Spending time with your children to better understand the content of their screen time, setting rules for social media and television time and sticking to those rules consistently could protect them from some negative effects. A helpful guide to develop and track your family media plan is available at www.healthychildren.org.

Looking more closely at our children’s social media use, we must keep in mind that we, as parents, serve as the primary role models for our offspring. Are we preoccupied with our smartphones? Do we turn them off during dinner or family time? Do we allow online media to interfere with family interaction?

It’s not an overstatement to say understanding and working towards achieving protective factors in family life can literally make a life-or-death difference. Consistently modeling digital behavior, monitoring the media content your children access, balancing online and offline activities and positive family engagement can reduce the risks of depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s not easy, but it’s a small price to pay for our kids’ lives in the world in which we live today.