Managing child mental health in the digital age

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The children of today are the first generation of people who will grow up native to a life filled with smartphones, tablets, and other screens. This poses a difficult problem for the parents of today, who have the unenviable task of figuring out where to draw the lines. There has been much discussion as to the effects these technological advances will have on the physical health of these kids, but there is growing concern about the effects technology will have on their mental health too. This blog aims to clarify these concerns, and outline ways parents can look after the mental health of their kids in the digital age.

What are the effects?

Unfortunately, as handheld devices such as tablets and smartphones are relatively new (the first iPhone was released in 2007), there has not been a great deal of research conducted in this area. However, a study published in 2014 by Public Health England found that children who spend copious amounts of time online are far more susceptible to developing mental health issues early on. Incidences of loneliness, depression, and anxiety in children are far more common than ever before.

Technology makes it far easier for children to withdraw and fall into a trap of social isolation. Failing to realise that the fabulous lifestyles people online appear to have are not realistic representations can then make children feel inadequate, giving them unrealistic standards of beauty and lifestyle few of us could ever achieve. And of course, such unfettered access to the internet leaves the door wide open for cyberbullying, which can be extremely difficult to monitor.

The study by Public Health England found that around 750,000 British teenagers have been so negatively affected by their online activity that they say they have ‘nothing to live for’.

What Can Parents Do?

The most important thing to note from the study above is that these negative effects were most common in children who spent more than four hours a day online. Limiting the amount of time spent on the internet may be a bit of a challenge depending on the age of the child, but it is also the first and most effective step at limiting the inherent risks as well.

Parental monitoring options are available on most devices as standard now, and can allow you to set time limits, block websites and apps, monitor communications, and more. These can be a very useful tool in protecting your children, especially the younger ones. However, there are two main issues with this. The first is that older children will probably find a way around it because they know these things better than we do. The other is that it can erode trust and drive kids away. Microsoft came under fire a few years ago after their new parental monitoring programme began outing gay children to their parents. While you may think monitoring is keeping them safe, it can make children feel trapped as well.

Parents need to know what their children are doing online just as much as they need to know where they’re going when they go out. There are a lot of dangerous things on the internet, from inappropriate material to vicious cyberbullies. But the reality is that you can’t be there all the time. While it is important to limit their online activity, the most important step is to ensure that they understand the dangers themselves. It is far more important to explain why it is inappropriate to talk to someone much older, or that the lives people post online are only half-truths. The internet may be bringing these issues to the fore, but humans think the same regardless of whether or not they are online. So while feelings of isolation or depression may be more common as a result of technology, if children can understand how the world behind it works, they’ll be much better equipped to deal with it themselves.

David Clarke