The issue of social media is commonly woven into the multitude of inpatient and private practice clients that I consult to every day. I have come across numerous cases of cyberbullying, inciting self-harming behaviours, sexual predation, harassment, inappropriate distribution of naked photos and depression and suicide.
It is every parent’s worst nightmare… the dreaded screen!
Technology is however a very important part of our daily lives and it is not going away. It is an essential part of our children’s lives and it is not going away! Sorry, but it’s not going away! In fact, technology, is the way in which our children communicate, gain knowledge and socialise. I am not saying that it is all necessarily correct, but it’s a part of our children’s everyday world and therefore it’s something that every parent has to become familiar with.
My approach to this matter is much the same as for most situations: context, context, context, balance, education, communication, awareness and openness to learning. Don’t complicate what doesn’t need to be complicated, but equally, don’t simplify what is not simple.
Parents need to be responsible:
I am mostly confronted by parent’s inability to step up in their parenting role and take responsibility for what their child is doing; and this would include their online activity. I do not consider this to be a breach of your child’s privacy. It is important that you set clear expectations of what constitutes the healthy use of technology. This will differ for each household and it is each parent’s prerogative to set their rules. Privacy is borne out of trust. Sometimes explaining to your child that monitoring is about the lack of trust that you have in the behaviour of other people out there. Let your child know that it is your responsibility to keep them safe and that the more they are able to manage their cyber-safety, the more you will feel comfortable giving them additional privacy. It is important that there is good communication and that your child feels comfortable reporting to you any untoward situations. It is important that they realise it won’t result in any trouble or you becoming angry.
Model appropriate use of technology:
Parents should be mindful of their own use of technology and what they are modelling to their child. It is important to put devices away and make time to connect with your child. Always put your device aside when your child is talking to you and trying to connect. Tell your child how technology impacts on you (headaches, concentration, self-esteem etc) and how you are managing to cope with those symptoms.
Building relationships with your child(ren):
Children are more likely to communicate openly when there is a good relationship with their parent. They are more able to tolerate rules and boundaries. Parents should focus on building a good connection with their child by listening and responding appropriately to their feelings. It is important to try understand your child’s actions and words and respond with empathy and kind intent.
Technology and mental health:
Evidence suggests that excess use of technology has a negative impact on mental health. I believe it is multifactorial and multi-layered and causality cannot be inferred as a general rule. I have seen how technology can impact negatively on mental health.
Cyberbullying is rife and has resulted in the suicides of many young people. All cyberbullying should be reported and children should be taught not to cyberbully. Children should be encouraged to refrain from putting anything online that they would not be comfortable saying to someone in person.
For many children and adolescent’s technology is a means of managing their emotions. They “zone out” or disassociate from internal distress or external difficulties. Parents should notice the pattern of their child’s use of technology, as well as their overall well-being, and respond accordingly. It might be that the child is needing to consult with a mental health professional.
Excessive time on screens does affect the child’s brain. Technology stimulates the brain’s reward system, located in the limbic area of the brain. The reward system is mediated by a neurotransmitter, dopamine, that is also released when the drug cocaine is used. Adolescents seek stimulation of their reward system. Their reward system also requires more stimulation to be activated and responds more emphatically to any given stimulus. Therefore, excess use and the addictive nature of technology in adolescence is understandable form a physiological perspective.
A further concern is that technology increases the activity of the default motor network (DMN). This network is part of our “social brain” and it the part that is highly preoccupied with ourselves and ourselves in relation to others. From an evolutionary perspective, the social brain facilitates survival and genetic progression and knowledge of oneself and oneself in relation to others would be useful to the survival process.
However, this network is responsible for our ruminating thoughts that ultimately contribute to developing depression and anxiety. The DMN is more active in children with ADHD. Therefore, overuse of the DMN, does interfere with our children’s ability to concentrate. It is important to encourage children to enhance their focused attention by encouraging their engagement with activities, situations, people and objects outside of technology. This increases their ability to concentrate by improving the functioning of their focussed attention brain networks.
Children are constantly forming a sense of who they are and how they are seen by others in their world. Children’s sense of self is shaped by technological influences. Unfortunately, the world of technology isn’t always real, but children might not have this perspective. Often having this perspective doesn’t help the feelings of poor-self-worth, isolation and depression. Technology is influencing our children’s perspective on many aspects of life in an unrealistic way e.g. Body image, relationships, happiness, success, possibility etc.
Children as young as 8 years of age are being exposed to pornography. Due to the nature of the internet, this can happen without children deliberately searching for it. It is very important that parents discuss the issue of pornography so that their child feels comfortable reporting it, should they come across it unintentionally. Pornography has had a very negative impact on young people’s expectations and understanding of sex, intimacy and relationships. It has encouraged violence, aggression and assault and is something that requires monitoring and education.
Technology can be a hunting ground for many sexual predators and scam-artists. Parents should always be monitoring their child’s online activity. Children are very suggestible and can easily be lured. Parents should become aware of all the possible ways that sexual predators and scam-artists operate and discuss these situations with their child. Parent’s education is vital to their child’s safety.
Technology also has many upsides and there are numerous helpful websites and apps that children use to find support and gain knowledge. Many very socially isolated children are able to have connections online and find this very uplifting and comforting.
The important message is to manage technology use, particularly when it is having a negative impact on a child’s relationships, schoolwork and family life.