As tweens and teens head back to school, the internet is swarming with helpful tips for a wide range of topics related to school-year adventures. At Hueya, we’re committed to supporting families as they navigate the complexities of raising children in a digital age. At the heart of many families’ concerns, especially as children head back to classrooms, hallways, and commons, is their safety from harm, harassment, and cyberbullying.
To understand more about the connection between mental health in a digital age, Hueya staff interviewed a well known and respected psychotherapist, who has spent over 40 years working with children, adolescents, families, and schools–both public and independent–to support mental health and family wellness. In our conversation, we discussed the role of social media, the impact of cyberbullying, and considerations of parenting in a digital age.
In your work with youth and families, what do you see as the connection between smartphones, social media, and mental health?
I think smartphones can be a wonderful way for kids too connect with friends and family. It’s a way to talk, play games, and share pictures. I also think they can be a major distraction and a way to disconnect with others when they are together. If people are together and sharing information (facts, games) it can be fun and helpful. But, I think if they’re each doing something different when together, it can be very rude and harmful to relationships–for children, adolescents and adults.
Is cyberbullying a big topic in your work currently?
It is a big issue with adolescent clients. Snapchat, Instagram comments, and pictures that are offensive can be harmful. There seems to be a trend where someone pretends to be someone else–it’s a real problematic situation. It can ruin relationships and reputations, and it’s destructive. It’s character assassination, digitally.
Is this a new problem?
Social media often creates more problems because things happens so quickly and not in person, so false information spreads rapidly. Rumors were always negative and hurtful but spread one person at a time over time. Now, it’s harder to undo.
Is the mental health of youth different now because of social media?
I think a lot of things in the digital world have changed for adolescents. Once in awhile, it’s for the better, but can be more harmful and isolating. Now, it can correlate with increased anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression are on the rise with this age group.
What are your recommendations for adults in the lives of children with regard to cyberbullying:
Talk with adolescents about what they seeing and hearing about themselves and others.
Discussions should extend well beyond social media accounts. Communication must stay open on all fronts for adolescents to feel free and trusting of sharing information with their parents and advisors at school.
Based on your professional experience, when should kids have social media access?
I think that when children are interested in games, maybe 9 or 10, it’s okay to have access to a device, but not necessarily their own phone. Once in middle school, it’s important to have access to cell phones for safety, because they’re often away from home. The social media aspect should be based on the adolescent’s maturity level and the responsibility they’ve shown with family and school work. If there are aberrant behaviors, such as demonstrating risk-taking behaviors, I would not suggest they have a social media account at all. If they are responsible, it is okay, but parents need to monitor, until about 16-17–it really depends on the individual. At that point, they need more freedom with parents not monitoring as much. At a younger age, a parent’s access to an adolescent’s accounts is important, and it’s good to monitor for a while but, with age and maturity, it’s developmentally important to ease up. Depending on the level of responsibility, adults should engage in less checking, and building more and more trust.
Signs that may be a problem with social media:
If a teen is withdrawing from a previous peer group or uninterested in seeking out friends it may be an indicator that something else has happened. If an adolescent is isolating, missing school, has dramatic dips in their grades, reluctant to go to school, if there are signs of drugs or alcohol, or inappropriate sexual behavior, these are signs that require immediate attention.
Based on your interactions with youth, what is important for youth about social media?
It is important to stay connected with supportive friends, always. Compared to prior generations, it’s not that different, but in the past, friends lived closer to one another, they talked on the phone, and peer groups developed in neighborhoods. Now, teenagers in a lot of schools don’t always live very close to one another, and smartphones and social media offer a way to stay in touch, to stay connected. Sometimes, the immediacy for response is concerning–it can make people compulsive. For instance, with kids and texting, if their texts are not followed by an immediate response, adolescents can be hard on themselves or worry something is wrong. I recently worked with a young woman who was hesitant to end a romantic relationship with someone who was not kind because she was afraid to break “The Chain” of messages.
What is something adults or parents need to understand about youth and social media and mental health:
I don’t think I am an expert on social media, but I am on the mental health of adolescents, and I have learned a lot about social media through adolescents. A lot of things they don’t want their parents to see are on their phones. I think it’s interesting with social media that adolescents, in my observation, rarely talk to their friends and family on their phones, and therefore, they’re not receiving the nuances of communication–the tone, the emotion is missed. There is room for a lot of misinterpretation or the meaning is just abbreviated to the extreme in texts.
Should adults interact more with youth through social media?
No, just the opposite: families need more face-to-face interaction.
What do you think about technology contracts?
Families should have a lot of discussions and general contracts. If problems later arise, their contracts should be more specific.
Should parents take away social media, games, phones?
Devices are a privilege and should be treated as such. If they are responsible, adolescents should have privileges. The devices are a privilege and need to go with with family rules for behavior. I personally hate it when parents constantly threaten to take away anything–it’s a very negative approach to parenting. Parents should instead talk about trust building, and they can use devices as incentives.
You mentioned depression and anxiety–are they really on the rise?
In my practice, yes, anxiety and depression are on the rise. In terms of the reasons, it’s unclear. In 40 plus years I have seen so many changes, but I think families often spend much less time as a unit and when they’re in their homes, they’re often separate satellites zooming around, but not talking and eating together. This is harmful to every individual in the family because fewer connections and conversations mean that family members don’t really get to know each other. I think it’s a contributing factor. Also, I do think there’s a decrease in outdoor activity, and this is a contributing factor to anxiety and depression.
What makes a healthy family?
I think a healthy family is one in which the members have a great deal of respect and trust for one another, and they value time together. They express kindness and joy with one another. Healthy families acknowledge & talk about problems and issues, share their feelings, and respect differences. I think joy is important: it is extremely vital families have fun together!