Educators should be aware of the mental health challenges that more and more of our young students are dealing with.
There is a growing body of evidence indicating that the smartphone and similar devices, and the social media use that they support, are having bad effects on our kids, who have become pretty much dependent on them over the last decade.
While rates of depression and other indicators of mental health have been worsening for both boys and girls, there appears to a much sharper impact on females. This can be expected, as the different sexes mature in different ways. As boys grow, if they feel aggression or anger they tend to deal with it in a physical way. Their use of devices often tends towards gaming and web browsing. But girls tend to express their aggression in a social way, and these ever-present digital tools lend themselves to that.
Additionally, all of those Instagram pics and Snapchat stories, etc., create increased pressure to be cheerful, pretty, fun, and cool. Unless you are a young girl or young woman right now, it is probably pretty challenging to have a good sense of what this must be like for today's teenaged girls.
There is no shortage of information available about this issue. Just google it. The following excerpt is from the article “Does Social Media Cause Depression” from the Child Mind Institute:
“A 2017 study of over half a million eighth through 12th graders found that the number exhibiting high levels of depressive symptoms increased by 33 percent between 2010 and 2015. In the same period, the suicide rate for girls in that age group increased by 65 percent.
Smartphones were introduced in 2007, and by 2015 fully 92 percent of teens and young adults owned a smartphone. The rise in depressive symptoms correlates with smartphone adoption during that period, even when matched year by year, observes the study’s lead author, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge.”
These are some disturbing facts. So what can we as educators and parents do about this? Here are some tips:
- Delay the age at which kids get smart phones: As the smartphone has become a fixture in our lives, I've noticed that parents are giving kids their own phones at younger and younger ages. Try to resist this. Did you know that most social media apps require users to be 13 years of age or older? Even if you feel strongly about giving younger kids a device (so they can stay in touch, for example), hold the line on social media use until they hit 13 if you can. Peer pressure is going to be hard to ignore, but I have to believe that over the coming decade we're going to see pressure to reduce the digitization of young children, so go ahead – be a trailblazer and do what is really right by your kids.
- Reduce screen time: According to this article, “Teenagers who get a small amount of exposure to screen time, between one and five hours a week, are happier than those who get none at all. The least happy ones were those who used screens for 20 or more hours a week.”
- Use apps that help monitor screen time and social media use: There are a growing number of these available. Apple has a “Screen Time” app for example. I really wish my wife and I knew more about this years ago and had set more limits or used tools like Net Nanny when we started allowing our kids to use the web and smartphones.
- Talk to your kids: Talking about these issues is important. But don't lecture your kids, have a conversation. Ask them what they think. Ask them to consider the limits they should have. They may surprise you.
If you notice that a student seems to be withdrawn or suffering, or suspect cyberbullying, there are things you can do. Let students know its okay to talk about it. Many schools are developing some pretty aggressive policies about cyberbullying, so make sure you are up on what your school is doing in this area. Of course, the anxiety and depression that kids may experience are not always tied to cyberbullying. This article, “Responding to a Student's Depression“, contains some good guidance on ways that teachers can help students struggling with these issues.
Adults have allowed the smartphone to become a ubiquitous part of our lives and this has increasingly impacted the children we raise and teach. Technology has always had its pros and cons and it always will. It is up to adults to work together to recognize and develop approaches to dealing with the negative aspects of young people being immersed in the digital world. We've got a long way to go. We need to step it up.