The Digital Age: Is It Putting Youth’s Mental Health at Risk?

The Digital Age: Is It Putting Youth’s Mental Health at Risk?

By: Courtney Cagle

Some of the most amazing things have happened because of the digital age. Reconnecting with family, making friends from all over the world, not to mention endless information at our fingertips. One result of all these advancements is that kids are spending more and more time online, causing both parents and researchers to ask the question: How are all these hours online affecting the way our teens think and behave? 

Emma is a 14-year-old girl who, like most 14-year-old girls, spends most of her time on social media. She’s a daily poster on Instagram, prides herself on her Twitter following, and has a small following on a YouTube account where she has a vlog (video blog) about her daily life. When she’s not on her phone or computer, she maintains good grades, dances on her school dance team, and spends time with her family.

Emma appears to be a healthy young girl, but she doesn’t feel healthy at all. She spends a lot of her time looking at beauty and exercise vloggers. While Emma thinks she does a lot to keep herself healthy and fit, she finds herself developing an unhealthy body image. Watching these bodybuilders work out every day and enjoy perfect bodies, with what appears to be little effort, makes her question if she’s really doing enough. Eventually, Emma starts skipping family dinners, claiming she had a big lunch. She spends her nights staring at her body in the mirror and pointing out her so-called “flaws” and obsessing about them. 

While this may seem like an unlikely story, a study done by the University of Pittsburgh found that those who spend more time on social media had 2.2 times the risk of developing an eating disorder or body dysmorphic disorder (Hurley, 2018). Anxiety is also becoming a problem in the wake of social media. A study done by Harvard University showed that 48% of youth that spends 5 hours on social media a day have at least one suicide risk factor, while only 33% of youth have suicide risk at 2 hours per day. There are many factors on social media that induce anxiety, such as kids seeing posts of events they were not invited to, feeling pressured to post things that their peers will like, feeling pressured to get likes and comments, and having their friends post pictures of things that they do not like and cannot control (Hurley, 2018).  

All of this anxiety and worry is causing many of our kids to literally “lose sleep” over what they have seen or posted online. It doesn’t help that most kids that have access to their phone in bed and report staying up at least an hour later than they would without one. A study done by Simple Sleep Services shows that the blue light that is emitted from phones, tablets, and laptops actually disturbs our circadian rhythms. Teens are meant to get 8-10 hours of sleep a night, but since the digital age has provided them with technology, most teens are reporting that they get only 5-7 hours (Hansen, 2018). Although lack of sleep might not seem like a serious problem, sleep can seriously affect a teen’s mental health. Teens who have sleep deprivation are 10 times more likely to have clinical depression and 17 times more likely to have clinical anxiety (The Complex Relationship Between Sleep, Depression, and Anxiety).  

While these studies and statistics may scare parents, there are many ways parents can help empower their tees to combat the negative aspect of living in the digital age. 

Here are 4 ways to help your kids stay mentally healthy in a digitally saturated world:

  1. Set screen-free times WITH your kids. Have a time in the day or at night when everyone is off of their phones. Make it a time when no technology is allowed. This can be in the car, at dinner, at breakfast, etc. This will be a time for kids to get off of electronics and enjoy life without a screen in front of them. It will help them to be less focused on the digital world (Shafer, 2017). 
  2. Set internet and electronic expectations WITH your kids and be firm with these rules! Make specific rules and guidelines about using electronics and the internet. These rules should include time restraints, talking about not posting unkind comments or inappropriate pictures, leaving electronics at home when they are at school or out with family and friends, etc. Work together with your kids to create a media guideline that works for your family.
    • As parents, we need to lead by example and show kids that screen-time should be deliberately done, with limits that will be enforced. Don’t allow them to have free reign and make sure they are making the rules with you. It gives them more say and will help to foster a good relationship that builds trust and communication (Shafer, 2017).  
  3. Check-in with your tweens and teens. Let them know that you care about them and want to know what is going on in their lives. After school, talk with them about their day, ask what they did and how it made them feel. Talk to them about media (how often they are on it and how it makes them feel), online safety, gaming, bullying, the dangers of pornography, and other topics that concern our kids as they grow up in the digital age.
    • Talk to your kids about everything–whether trivial or serious–and make sure they know you are there for them. Often, we think we only need to pay attention to the “important” things our kids say. But to our kids, it is ALL important. So pay attention when your son tells you all about the characters, weapons, and levels of a game he is playing online. Be engaged when your daughter is telling you about her new makeup, fake eyebrows included. If you are able to share open communication with them, they will be more likely to let you in on what’s going on in their lives (Shafer, 2017).
  4. Make your kids a priority–daily. When struggling with anxiety, depression, or body disorders, it’s important to have a support system. They need to feel that someone cares for them and wants to help them in any way that they can. When you talk to your kids, do twice as much listening as you do speaking. Spend time with them, set down your phone or laptop when talking, eat dinner with them, take them out on a date, or be apart of an activity that they love. They need to see the love that you have for them. 

There is so much that you can do as a parent to help your kids navigate their online world. Doing your best to maintain open communication will be a key factor in helping your kids prevent and overcome serious mental health issues they may be struggling with. 

For more information on how to help your children and teens to become stronger emotionally, intellectually, and socially, check out our book, 30 Days to a Stronger Child. 

To help your children understand how to use technology for good, check out our book, Noah’s New Phone. 

Check out our books that will help improve your kids’ body image. For girls, we have Messages About Me: Sydney’s Story and for boys, Messages About Me: Wade’s Story. 

If you are worried that your child may have clinical depression, check out our article 13 Reasons Why Not…


Courtney Cagle is a senior at Brigham Young University-Idaho graduating in Marriage and Family Studies. She loves kids and wants to help create a safe environment for all children to learn and grow. 

Citations:

Hansen, K. (2018, February 28). Is Social Media Affecting Your Teenagers Sleep? :: Simple Sleep Services  When it comes to getting ample rest, teenagers and young adults arguably struggle the most. With erratic sleep schedules, late night studying or socializing, and schedules full of classes and activity, its understandable that many teens can suffer from a lack of sleep. But do underlying social media habits play a . Retrieved June 16, 2018, from https://www.simplesleepservices.com/social-media-affecting-teenagers-sleep/ 

Hurley, K. (2018, February 13). Social Media and Teens: How Does Social Media Affect Mental Health? Retrieved June 16, 2018, from https://www.psycom.net/social-media-teen-mental-health 

Shafer, L. (2017, December 15). Social Media and Teen Anxiety. Retrieved June 16, 2018, from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/17/12/social-media-and-teen-anxiety

The Complex Relationship Between Sleep, Depression & Anxiety. (n.d.). Retrieved June 16, 2018, from https://sleepfoundation.org/excessivesleepiness/content/the-complex-relationship-between-sleep-depression-anxiety