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Digital Kids: The Effects of Technology on Mental Health


10 min read

One of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to worsen the mental health crisis affecting America’s youth. The isolation and disruptions that characterized the height of the pandemic were hardest on young people, who rely on normalcy, predictability, and routine. Interruptions in learning, physical separation from friends and peers, missed milestones, and for some, seeing loved ones get sick and die, all took a toll on young people’s well-being.

Yet it’s clear that the pandemic only amplified a trend that was already underway. Long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, educators and others who work closely with young people were sounding the alarm about the rising rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and other mental and emotional issues among children and teens. In his 2021 advisory on youth mental health, for instance, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy cites a CDC survey which found that “in 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009.”

The pandemic made cause and effect visible. We could see in real time the pandemic’s effects on mental health and the impact the pandemic’s disruptions were having on kids. But when we look beyond the last few years, it’s harder to find such straightforward causation. It’s increasingly clear, however, that the rise of digital media is one factor contributing to the worsening of kids’ mental health. Smartphones first became available in 2012, and while we can’t lay all the blame for this crisis on technology and particularly social media, the decline in well-being and the rise of smartphone use occurred in tandem, suggesting a relationship we can’t ignore.

Social Media Effects on Mental Health

A number of studies have found an association between the amount of time spent on social media and symptoms of depression and anxiety, though it can be difficult to tease apart cause and effect. Does excessive use of social media cause anxiety and depression, or do young people who are already experiencing these symptoms simply spend more time online? The answer may be both. But at least one study in 2020 found that people who deactivated their Facebook account for a month experienced lower depression and anxiety while their happiness and life satisfaction went up.

But for many kids, happiness appears to be in short supply. A new report issued by the CDC found that “three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021, double the rate of boys, and one in three girls seriously considered attempting suicide.” (While many studies indicate a similar gender imbalance, it’s also possible that depression in boys presents differently and is harder to measure.) LGBTQ youth also had high rates of depression and poor mental health.

The report cites a number of contributing factors, including experiences of trauma and violence, but Dr. Victor Fornari, the vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry for Northwell Health in New York, also pointed a finger at the rise of digital media. Based on what he’s seen, he believes there’s “no question” that there’s a relationship between the use of technology and depression in kids. He cites the prevalence of cyberbullying and mean comments made online, such as “I hate you” and “Nobody likes you.” “It’s like harpoons to their heart every time,” he says.

Dr. Stephanie Eken, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Wisconsin, agrees. Responding to the CDC report, she notes the particular pressures social media platforms put on girls: “Body type expectations and the images that they’re shown with the flood of information that we have available to us has detrimental effects,” she says. And she notes that girls are being exposed to these images earlier and earlier, long before they’re equipped to question or challenge what they’re seeing.

While it’s true that social media enabled young people to stay connected during the pandemic, which was undoubtedly positive, the pandemic also significantly increased the amount of time kids and teens spent online, and there’s evidence that these increases have stuck. Meanwhile, every hour spent staring at a screen is an hour not engaged in other healthy activities: interacting face-to-face with peers and family members, engaging in physical activity (which has clear benefits for mental health), and sleeping. Indeed, a study from the Pittsburgh School of Medicine and others have found that increased social media use by adolescents leads to less and poorer quality sleep, which in turn has negative impacts on thinking, school performance, and emotional health.

Spending Hours (and Hours) Online

It’s hard to think of anything that rivals the digital revolution and the speed with which digital media has woven itself into our lives. The vast majority of American adults own a smartphone, and so do their children — at younger and younger ages.

In its 2021 report on teens’ media use, Common Sense — a nonprofit organization that provides information and education about kids and families — found that 30% of 8- and 9-year-olds have their own smartphones. Among 12- and 13-year-olds, 70% do, and 90% of teens 14 and older do. Other research shows that the number of teens using social media (whether they have their own phone or not) is about 95%.

Merely having a smartphone itself isn’t problematic. When technology and apps are engaged with in moderation — say, an hour a day spent watching videos, sending texts, playing games, or engaging with social media — they can be a fun source of entertainment and enhance young people’s social connections. But the problem with electronic devices and social media platforms is that moderation can prove difficult if not impossible. Rather than spending an hour or two a day on their phones, many young people spend six, seven hours online, or more. In fact, one recent study found that adolescents spent nearly eight hours a day online — and that didn’t include school-related activities.

Group of teens using social media

Technology Addiction, Social Media, and Anxiety

By now, many people recognize that there’s something addictive about digital media, and that young people are particularly vulnerable. In a recent interview on CNN, Vivek Murthy put it this way: “You have some of the best designers and product developers in the world who have designed these products to make sure people are maximizing the amount of time they spend on these platforms. And if we tell a child, ‘Use the force of your willpower to control how much time you’re spending,’ you’re pitting a child against the world’s greatest product designers.”

2016 report from Common Sense found that 50 percent of teenagers felt addicted to their smartphones and that 59 percent of their parents considered their kids to be addicted. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist at Stanford and the author of the book Dopamine Nation, is familiar with the addictive nature of smartphones and apps like Instagram, YouTube and, especially, TikTok. In a recent interview on CNN, Lembke says the first time she used TikTok, three hours passed before she finally came up for air. “The way that they’ve been created immediately taps into our dopamine reward pathway, and we’re engaged,” she says of TikTok and other popular apps.

And just as with addictive substances like drugs, the brain develops a tolerance to these inputs and begins to crave more and more. In the absence of these stimuli, says Lembke, brains can enter “a dopamine deficit state akin to a clinical depression or to an anxiety disorder.” According to Lembke, digital devices might be making us, and especially our kids, mentally unwell.

The Impact of Cyberbullying

Another way digital media negatively affects kids is cyberbullying. Bullying of any kind is painful and can lead to feelings of sadness, depression, and even suicidal ideation in the kids who are its targets. But technology has added a new dimension to the pain of being victimized in this way. Now bullying behavior can be more persistent, more widespread, and highly public. Feelings of embarrassment, helplessness, shame, and humiliation that often result from being bullied are magnified exponentially when the bullying moves online — deeply affecting its victims at a time when the importance of self-image and the need to fit in are at their height.

Recently, a 14-year-old girl at a New Jersey high school took her own life after her attack by classmates was filmed and then posted on TikTok. While most kids who are cyberbullied don’t become suicidal, the fact that some do signals a major problem that needs addressing.

Deleting Social Media for Mental Health

The impact of social media on children and teens is of significant concern to parents, teachers, and other adults who care about kids, but young people themselves are increasingly aware of the downsides of too much digital media. As noted in the Common Sense report, half of teens consider themselves to be addicted to their phones. And in one survey, nearly a quarter of adolescents cited the negative effects of social media on mental health. What might initially feel like a fun way to connect can end up triggering negative self-comparisons, feelings of being excluded, and fear of missing out.

Recently, a group of teenagers in Brooklyn made the news for doing something radical: giving up their smartphones. The teens formed a group called the Luddite Club, and members carry flip phones or no phone at all. The 17-year-old founder, Logan Lane, got her first smartphone at age 11, and over the years, she says she spent a lot of time on Instagram, often going to sleep with her phone by her side. She says the effect of all that screen time was an erratic sleep schedule and a persistent feeling of dissatisfaction with herself.

During the pandemic, her social media use skyrocketed, and eventually something inside her clicked. First she deleted social media, but then she gave up her phone entirely. Immediately, she began sleeping better and started engaging in new activities — knitting, reading books, spending time in the park with friends. She and her fellow Luddites are happier offline.

It’s Up to Adults to Help Kids Thrive

As more people pay attention to the downsides of social media, there may be widespread calls for change. A school district in Seattle is suing the companies that own TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and Snap, claiming that their social media platforms are a major driver of the decline in students’ social, emotional, and mental health. No doubt more law suits will follow.

The influence of digital media is just one of the powerful forces shaping young people’s mental health. But no matter what the causes are, it’s clear that early intervention by caring, qualified professionals can have long-term benefits in young people’s lives, and increasingly these interventions are school based. Effective School Solutions provides in-school comprehensive clinical programs that support students at every level of need, including those most at-risk, with the one goal of helping them thrive.

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