Too much screen time harms youth; how families and government can drive better outcomes
We are keeping our Eye on Mental Health for you taking a closer look at research this year finding screen time is tied to suicide risk for “tweens” or preteens. The study out of UC San Francisco found that the more time kids spend using screens from age 9 to 11, the higher their odds of having suicidal behaviors two years later at 11-13. Each additional hour of screen time increased the risk by 9%.
A Centennial counselor who specializes in treating suicidal youth isn’t at all surprised. She shared with us how the science has informed her choices as a parent.
Amanda Woodard advises delaying as long as possible getting your kids a smartphone.
Her middle school-aged son doesn’t have a cell. He may be an outlier, but he and his younger sibling also see first-hand the downside of too much screen time.
“They see these phone calls coming in or mommy’s got to go to work or mom needs to do an emergency session because a teen is in crisis,” Woodard said. “They definitely have a different perspective of this is a dangerous road to go down. Social media is a dangerous road to go down.”
During a recent panel focused on mental health at Children’s Hospital Colorado physicians including the nation’s Surgeon General discussed how critical it is to protect kids from the dangers of screen time.
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said, “I do believe that 13 is too young, for our kids to be on social media. Early adolescence is a time where kids are developing their brains, are developing their relationships to developing their own identity and sense of self is developing.”
Dr. K. Ron-Li Liaw is Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Mental Health in Chief. She added, “Their brains, those networks are forming in such a plastic age and a vulnerable age.”
In her practice Amanda Woodard sees adolescents drawn into feelings of isolation which she says can lead to suicidal ideation, clarifying that “Isolation can be ‘I have a million friends and getting a million likes on social media and I still feel utterly alone.”
Liaw says bullying on social sites is a “huge driver of kids committing suicide, or getting depressed and not wanting to go to school.” She said, “In the emergency room, when we have kids who come in and in crisis, a lot of times, it’s because they’ve being bullied by other kids in the class, or outside of school on a social media platform, right?”
In addition to seeing the age for accessing social media raised, Surgeon General Murthy would like to see more regulation of social media companies, “Ensuring that we have adequate safety standards, just like we do for many other products. Government can also makes sure that there are requirements around data transparency so that companies have to disclose the data that they have on the mental health impacts their platforms are having.”
Until then families are left to figure out how to protect their kids. Amanda Woodard says you have to stay engaged and place strict limits, “Make sure you have monitoring software, pay for monitoring software on your kids’ phone, on your kids’ computers, that you know what they’re logging into.”
And as much as possible encourage your kids to develop friendships and activities in the real, rather than the virtual world. Woodard added, “Maybe go out and skate or hang with friends, go for walks right? Get out and be more in person because my mental health is better if I do that.”
Woodard advises there be no more than an hour of phone/screen time per day.
The following is from the Surgeon General’s advisory on youth mental health.
Technology and youth mental health: questions for families to consider
- How much time is my child spending online? Is it taking away from healthy offline activities,
such as exercising, seeing friends, reading, and sleeping?
- Are there healthy limits I can set on my child’s use of technology, such as limiting screen time
to specific times of the day or week, or limiting certain kinds of uses?
- Am I aware of what devices and content my child has access to?
- Is my child getting something meaningful and constructive out of content they are looking
at, creating, or sharing? How do I know?
- Are there healthier ways my child could engage online? (Examples: Finding meal recipes,
researching options for a family outing, video chatting with a relative, etc.)
- Is being online riskier for my child than for some other children? For example, does my child
have a mental health condition that might make them react more strongly to certain kinds of
stressful or emotional content?
- How does my child feel about the time they spend online?
- Is my child engaging because they want to, or because they feel like they have to?
- How can I create space for open conversations with my child about their experiences online?
- How do I feel about my own use of technology? Can I be a better role model for my child?
See the full advisory, here: https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-youth-mental-health-advisory.pdf