If you enter the phrase, “social media’s impact on children’s mental health” in your favorite internet search engine, you will find many articles about an issue weighing on our culture’s mind. While clear-cut answers appear elusive, it is appropriate this month — Mental Health Awareness Month — to acknowledge that mental health issues are on the rise among our youths. We must ask, as Pope Francis has asked, “how can we find our true communitarian identity, aware of the responsibility we have towards one another in the online network, as well?” (https://tinyurl.com/y9tu3vdz).
The Pew Center for Research says teens’ daily use of the internet has grown to 97% “and about one-third said they use it constantly,” the center’s survey found. Some 95% of teens reported using YouTube followed by TikTok (67%), and then Instagram and Snapchat, used by about six in 10 teens. Teens’ usage of Facebook is 32%, with small shares of teens using Twitter, Twitch, WhatsApp, Reddit and Tumblr, the survey found. In addition, 95% of teens have access to digital devices such as smartphones (95%), desktop or laptop computers (90%) and gaming consoles (80%) (https://tinyurl.com/2cubk2ne).
National Public Radio reports that for nearly a century psychologists “have repeatedly blamed new technologies for mental and physical health problems of children” with “little — or shady — data to back up their claims.” Is social media “the newest scapegoat for children’s mental health issues?” Researchers see a linkage, but the issue remains up for debate. (https://tinyurl.com/46ew7edf).
Joe Lilly, director of outpatient services for UnityPoint Health-Robert Young Center, with offices in the Quad-Cities region and Muscatine, sees social media as a double-edged sword. It connects people and provides a venue for sharing positive content but also provides a venue for bullying. On social media, you can’t just go home for bullying to go away.
Parents, mental health care providers and schools are trying to help kids navigate social media and to address issues such as bullying when they arise, he said. We need to accelerate our efforts, become better educated about social media platforms, tap into their potential, monitor and establish reasonable limits on usage.
COVID-19 has exacerbated kids’ mental health challenges and made a profound impact on how they live. Referrals to UnityPoint Health-Robert Young Center have been growing since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. The prevalent health concerns are anxiety and trauma. “We’ll serve over 3,000 children and their families this year compared to around 2,900 last year,” Lilly said. The good news is that families are more willing to seek help for their kids, reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
So, how can we help kids cope and to thrive in our rapidly changing multimedia culture?
- Pay attention to signs that a child is struggling, such as daily activities thrown off course, difficulty sleeping, unwillingness to get out of bed, food avoidance or feeling unwell.
- Take a nonjudgmental approach when kids are sharing their thoughts and feelings.
- Create a safe space for conversation by expressing empathy, genuineness, consistency in values and unconditional regard for the child. Helping kids through their struggles fosters their resiliency, Lilly said.
- Seek help. Visit Iowa’s Healthiest Initiative “Make it OK” website (iowahealthieststate.com/make-it-ok); UnityPoint Health-Robert Young Center (unitypoint.org/quadcities/robert-young-center-home.aspx); NAMI Iowa (namiiowa.org) for a list of local affiliates in your community. If in crisis, call Your Life Iowa Support Line at 855-581-8111. Text “NAMI” to 741741 for 24/7, confidential, free crisis counseling. Call or text 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Iowa has made strides to improve mental health resources, Leslie Carpenter, co-founder of Iowa Mental Health Advocacy said in a Jan. 26 opinion piece in Iowa Capital Dispatch. She cited passage of the “Complex Needs Mental Health Law in 2018, the Children’s Mental Health Law in 2019, and moving the funding stream from property taxes to the state budget.” However, “the need for mental health services – particularly among young people — has blown past the progress we have made. As a mental-health advocate, I continue to hear from Iowa families desperately searching for mental-health services for their loved ones and being unable to find them in our state” (https://tinyurl.com/5bv925rp).
This session of the Iowa Legislature is winding down, but it’s never too late to advocate for the services our families need. Visit (www.legis.iowa.gov) to contact your legislators.
In his World Day of Social Communication in 2019, Pope Francis said that if a family uses the internet “to be more connected, to then meet at table and look into each other’s eyes, then it is a resource. If a Church community coordinates its activity through the network, and then celebrates the Eucharist together, then it is a resource…”
The network we desire, the Holy Father said, opens “the way for dialogue, for encounter, for ‘smiles’ and expressions of tenderness…”
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor