Empowering Parents: Action Steps to Safeguarding Youth Mental Health in a Digital World
In a recent 19-page advisory report by Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the dangers of social media on young peoples’ mental health was highlighted, urging parents to be aware and proactive in protecting their children (1). The report emphasized the detrimental effects of excessive social media use on young people, including increased rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. For more on this, see part one posted recently here --> The Digital Apple: Exposing The Mental Health Crisis of Teenage Girls in our Brave New World.
The report also highlighted how challenging raising kids in a digital world is: "Nearly 70% of parents say parenting is now more difficult than it was 20 years ago, with technology and social media as the top two cited reasons (1)." I think we all can agree on this! It's rough out there, parents!
But there's hope! To address these concerns, the advisory offered several recommendations for parents, such as setting boundaries on screen time, encouraging open conversations about social media's impact, monitoring online activities, and promoting offline activities and face-to-face interactions. By implementing these strategies, parents can play a crucial role in mitigating the adverse effects of social media and fostering a healthier digital environment for their children.
Specifically, Dr. Murthy’s report gives parents some tools to work with: (1)
- Create a family media plan: Establish healthy technology boundaries by creating a plan that promotes open family discussion and rules about media use, including balancing screen time, setting content boundaries, and not sharing personal information. By setting limits on screen time and encouraging alternative activities such as hobbies, sports, and face-to-face interactions, we can create an environment where young people feel supported, valued, and connected.
When my kids were in middle school we had a cell phone “bedtime.” Phones were put to bed on a charger in our bedroom. Of course, this didn’t happen every single night. But we tried to keep this pattern. And I won't lie to you. This was not easy. But I promise, your kid won't hyperventilate (or die) overnight without her phone. They will eventually get accustomed to this. When attempting to implement this strategy: Don't fall for the "but how will I wake up for school without my alarm" trick. Pretty simple. Buy an actual alarm clock for their room. When you really think about it there is literally no reason for a kid to have a phone in their bed with them while they are trying to sleep.
- Create tech-free zones and encourage in-person friendships: Limit electronics before bedtime and during mealtimes to promote better sleep and engage in face-to-face interactions, encouraging children to develop social skills and prioritize offline connections. In this ever-growing digital age, it is crucial to prioritize incarnate relationships and create spaces for in-person connections. Research has shown that regular family meals, such as eating dinner around the table, have a positive impact on adolescent well-being. According to a systematic review of sharing time around a table, frequent family dinners are associated with lower rates of substance use, depression, and eating disorders among teenagers (2). We could all use a 20-minute break from our phones to break bread and talk face-to-face about our day. A phone box where everyone (parents included) places phones is a way to achieve this.
- Model responsible social media behavior: Set a good example by limiting your own social media use, being mindful of what and how you share about your child, and exhibiting positive behavior on your own social media accounts. Ouch. This one stings. Even writing this, I’m feeling convicted for my own excessive screen time. But, it’s going to be harder to set limits on your child’s phone, when they see adults in their circles glued to theirs.
- Teach kids about technology and empower them to be responsible online participants: Discuss the benefits and risks of social media, privacy protection, and responsible online behavior at an age-appropriate level. That digital footprint they (and you) are creating will go with you wherever you go. And it can come back to bite you. Think it won't? How about the rising star that was set to be the editor of Teen Vogue, but was recently forced to resign after the uproar over offensive tweets she made ten years prior while a student in college (3).
Engaging in open and honest conversations, actively listening to their concerns, and providing emotional support can help our teens navigate the challenges of the digital age. Taking action also involves promoting media literacy and critical thinking skills. By empowering teenage girls to discern the idealized portrayals on social media from real-life experiences, they can develop a healthier self-image and cultivate resilience. Encouraging them to engage in activities that promote self-expression, creativity, and personal growth can contribute to their overall well-being as well.
- Report cyberbullying and online abuse and exploitation: Talk to your child about reporting options and provide support if they are being harassed or approached by adults seeking inappropriate content. Report incidents to schools, online platforms, or law enforcement. By fostering open lines of communication, a child is less likely to be “catfished.” It pains me to mention this, but right here in Mississippi a 16-year-old took his life after falling prey to an online sextortion catfishing scheme on Instagram from an IP address on the other side of the "real" world. His father offered this advice to teens: "Understand there are evil traps set out for you on your phone. There are things out there that are out to get you. Be vigilant." And to parents, he advised, "Don't let your kids go to be with their phones (4)." There are two votes for no cell phones overnight! ;)
- Work with other parents to establish shared norms and practices: Collaborate with other parents to establish collective boundaries and support programs and policies promoting healthy social media use for children. You don't have to go at this mammoth undertaking all alone. Start talking to your tribe! Get a community game plan going with buy-in from parents in your teens' circles. There’s power in a shared approach.
The mental health crisis facing teenagers demands our attention and action. To start with, we must not turn a blind eye to the negative impact of excessive social media use and screen time. In addition, by taking proactive steps, we can actively work towards creating a supportive environment where our young people can thrive mentally, emotionally, and socially. In addition by fostering genuine, in-person connections and limiting screen time, we can provide a supportive environment for our young ones to thrive. Let's work together to guide our children through the digital world, lend an ear to listen to their struggles, and create a community that prioritizes genuine incarnate connections. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of our young people and help them navigate the challenges of the ever-shifting digital age.
What about the church? What can we do? Stay tuned for part 3.