Technology can help us connect with others, find answers to questions, and improve productivity, but as rates of depression rise in adolescents, many wonder if screens and social media are negatively affecting our children’s well-being.

Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s Health and Asst. Professor at UT Southwestern, says the answer isn’t clear-cut. “We want answers and explanations, so it’s easy to blame feelings of sadness, hopelessness and anxiety among teens to increased tech use,” he says. “But it’s rarely just one culprit.”

Epidemic of Loneliness

A 2018 study of adults by health insurer Cigna found that loneliness has reached “epidemic levels” in the U.S., and that young adults are more lonely and in poorer health than the elderly. But is technology to blame? Dr. Westers hesitates to point the finger at any one thing. “Technology can certainly contribute to or exacerbate existing feelings, but it’s more important to teach healthy, balanced tech habits and maintain good communication with your children, instead of banning all technology use.” To help avoid or minimize feelings of loneliness, stress or anxiety, Dr. Westers recommends teaching children three important aspects of digital health:

1. Digital Hygiene

Teens who use technology for more than an hour or two a day are more likely to report feeling depressed, lonely or anxious. That is one of many reasons why setting boundaries and limits can go a long way in helping children form a healthy relationship with technology.

  • Establish “no phone” times. For many families, this includes dinnertime and before and during bedtime.
  • Limit technology by balancing it with non-tech activities. Using technology for schoolwork is fine, but families should limit time spent looking at phones, playing video games, or watching TV.
  • Try a tech-free day. Pick a day of the week that works best for your family and try putting phones away for a solid 24 hours. This helps break everyone of the tech habit and can foster creativity and connection.
  • Take technology out of the bedroom. Research has shown that technology can disrupt sleep. Keep TVs, phones, tablets and laptops out of bedrooms to promote better sleep, which can ultimately help reduce feelings of sadness and anxiety.

2. Digital Etiquette

Digital etiquette can help children avoid and recognize cyber bullying, and what they should do if they spot it among their friends. For instance, sarcasm can be easily misinterpreted online and perceived as bullying. Also, not every message, comment, or text requires an immediate response, especially when angry. Refraining from responding immediately is a skill to be learned and practiced, and parents can help their child build this skill over time.

3. Digital Safety

Another important aspect of digital health is talking about how to be safe online. No matter how mature your child or teen is, they are not immune to making decisions that could put them in risky or potentially dangerous situations. Some ground rules for online behavior include never meeting anyone in-person that they’ve met online, not sharing personal information, and identifying websites that children are allowed to visit.

Open Lines of Communication

One of the best things parents can do to encourage good mental health is to create open lines of communication using these tips:

  • Check in often. Connecting with children can be as simple as asking about their day during dinnertime or scheduling a special coffee date on the weekend. Time spent together can give parents the opportunity to learn a little more about what’s going on with their teen or child.
  • Validate feelings. If your child tells you they feel lonely, respond with supporting statements like “I’m sorry you feel that way. How can I help?” Avoid temptation to dismiss feelings by saying things such as “You have plenty of friends. You shouldn’t feel lonely.”
  • Get help if you’re concerned about your child. Few people seek help for mental health problems. About one in five children and adolescents experience depression, but more than half go untreated. The same goes for anxiety disorders. Treatment is important because it can improve outcomes now and later in life.

Dr. Westers also cautions parents not to worry every time their child feels sad, depressed or lonely. “Adolescents can be moody and it’s hard for parents to know when children’s feelings are normal for their age and when there’s cause for concern,” he says. “Parents should trust their instincts and call a professional if they’re worried. A psychologist can look at the bigger picture and help identify if there is a bigger issue at play or if a child is experiencing a typical range of emotions.”

To learn more about identifying mental health issues in adolescents, enroll in a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) session, so you can “say something” when you “see something”. We have Youth MHFA sessions on February 21, March 13 and April 13, as well as an Adult MHFA session on February 25. Registration is $40, or $20 for educators. Go to cisdallas.org/mhfa to register today.

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