Life is hard for children and teenagers. Depression rates, self-harm, and suicide are increasing at a tragic rate. There is no doubt that social media and phones are involved in this story, but too often we simplify the role that they play.
When we point our finger at screens, suggesting that they are the cause of our teen’s troubles, we run the risk of missing the real cause of depression, the chance to connect with our teenagers around something that is important to them, and the opportunity to support their wellbeing.
A recent Time article paints a picture of the dire mental health of our teenagers, the result of a myriad of circumstances. “They are the post-9/11 generation, raised in an era of economic and national insecurity. They’ve never known a time when terrorism and school shootings weren’t the norm. They grew up watching their parents weather a severe recession, and, perhaps most important, they hit puberty at a time when technology and social media were transforming society.”
Despite recognizing that pressures are coming from a wide variety of places, the article largely focuses on screens, perhaps because it feels as though it is one area parents can affect.
However, just last month a big piece of research confirmed findings that screen time has very little impact on a young person’s mental health. The study, Everything in Moderation by Christopher J Ferguson, found that teenagers consumed on average six hours of screen time a day and that it had no correlation with depression at all. Even when screen time was excessive the link was weak, accounting only for 1.7 percent of the variance in depressive symptoms.
It’s an important study. It tells us we are spending far too much time worrying about screens and teens and asks us to search wider for the cause of teenage depression. Of the causes identified in the Time piece – a fraught economy, a violent society, school pressure, and social media pressure – once we take screens out of it, we're left with only one thing that we can actually impact: school.
Indeed, a brief study by Peter Gray published in Psychology Today found some shocking correlation between youth admittance to the psych wards in American hospitals and exam periods at school.
We need to switch our gaze from screens to school. We need to advocate for our children and the pressure put on them at their desks, through their homework, and by the exam boards.
One thing we are now beginning to understand about addiction is that it is less about the substance and more about social isolation, which is often exacerbated by the use of a substance. If parents are seeing an addiction to screens in their teenagers, the most important thing they can do is engage with the teens, provide opportunities for community, and increase connection in their relationships.
The last thing a teenager needs is to have the important relationships in their life fraught with tension. When we try to control our young people’s screen time or constantly let them know that we don’t approve of the time they spend on their phones, we burden a precious relationship. The alternative is to use screens to connect with them. Learn their favorite video games so you can play with them or get Snapchat so you can put a dog nose on the photo from when she was a toddler.
Demonizing our teenager’s use of screens could also mean that instead of turning to parents when the dark side of screens appears in the forms of cyber bullying or disturbing photos, teens keep it to themselves. If teenagers feel connected to their parents and are certain they won’t be judged or nagged, they're far more likely to open up about the hurtful effects of being online so that the parents can give them the support they need.
Studies have shown that simply having the information that we are doing okay and that we are making good choices can impact our well-being. A recent study from Harvard took a large number of hotel workers and split them into two groups. At the beginning of the study, the majority of the hotel workers rated themselves as unhealthy. They were all unaware that their hotel work exceeded the recommended amount of daily exercise. One group carried on as normal but the other group was given the information about the healthiness of their exercise. A few weeks later, the group that had that information had lost a significant amount of weight and had significantly lower blood pressure. A small shift in our perceptions from negative to positive can open us up to making small, healthy changes in our habits and behaviors.
If our young people use their screens with the knowledge that it is a positive thing, they are more likely to continue to make smart choices around their screens. If they focus on the good side of the internet – the chance to connect with important people in their life, to have fun, be entertained, and get inspired – they will be more able to shift into healthy screentime habits.
We can help with that. Indeed, we must if we want to help our teens manage the guilt they feel with the barrage of information they currently get from the media about how damaging social media and screen time can be.
Tell stories to your teenagers about how technology has helped people, share mindfulness apps with them, send them hilarious videos, and email them the inspirational blogs you find. Set up a private Facebook group for your extended family so cousins can share photos and jokes with each other. Celebrate the brilliant side of the internet with your teens.
That way, when you do need to talk about the internet and safety, they'll know you understand all the good, they will trust you have their best interests at heart, and they will be able to come up with the boundaries they need themselves.
Parenting teenagers can be hard, especially when they are dealing with stuff that wasn’t even invented in our own teenagehood. But our role as parents is to hold space for them as they find their way through these tricky years.
We have to do this in the face of a media industry that seems to be built on simplifying complicated topics and scaremongering. If we can hold all the different threads of our teenager’s stories, we will be far more able to connect with them and support them, the things they really need from us.