Screens and children’s mental health have been on the news a lot these past few days. Partly because of a few parent-led initiatives calling for smartphone-free childhood, and partly because of psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s new book: “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness”. There is a lot of contradictory information on this issue and at the same time it is an issue that deeply worries parents, so I thought we could dedicate this week’s blog to clearly explain what we know so far about it. 

Are smartphones to blame for children’s mental health problems?

Since the early 2010s children’s mental health has sharply declined. Data from the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and other industrialized countries show how rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm are higher than in any other generation for which we have data. 

The decline in children’s mental health coincided roughly with the arrival of smartphones and so it is easy to assume that one causes the other. However, the research doesn’t paint such a clear picture: 

  • Most research finds a relation between smartphone use and children’ mental health but most of it is correlational. What does this mean? It means that a relation is found between smartphone use and children’s mental health, but we cannot assume that smartphones are the cause for children’s poor mental health. Remember: correlation doesn’t mean causation. 

  • This relationship tends to be weak.

  • Not all studies find a relation between smartphone use and children’s mental health.
Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

What other factors may be influencing the decline of children’s mental health?

  • Intensive parenting: In the last few decades, parenting has become much more labour-intensive. This way of parenting requires parents to spend a great deal of energy, money, and time on their children’s well-being. Yet, research suggests that intensive parenting is not beneficial for children. It may lead to children feeling less competent, feel more depressed and more anxious. 

  • An increasing competitive society: children and teenagers report how academic pressure is worsening their mental health. 

  • Less outdoor, unsupervised play: Children are spending less time than ever before engaging in unsupervised, outdoor play. Outdoor play is especially beneficial for children because it allows them to experience challenges, understand risk, build confidence, resilience, and independence. 

How worried should I be about how smartphones and social media will impact my child? 

There are three factors that we should consider: How children use the phone; the things children stop doing because they are using their smartphone; and who your child is.

Let’s have a look at each one of them. 

  • How children use the phone: For many years, researchers and parents have been more focused on how much children use their phones than on how they use their phones. We should really focus on how they use their phones. It is not the same if your child spends two hours chatting or playing a video game with their friends than if they spend the same two hours watching porn or engaging with content that may be harmful. 

  • What your child’s screen time is preventing them from doing: If your child is not exercising, going out with friends, spending time with their family or studying because they are with the phone, we may have a problem in our hands. As with most things in life, moderation is key. 

  • Who your child is: It is difficult to know how each child will respond to using a phone or social media. In general, we can say that children who struggle offline are more likely to struggle online. To give you an example, children who engage in more risky behaviour offline, like drinking alcohol or having sex, are more likely to engage in more risky behaviours online, like watching porn or sexting. 

We tend to focus on the dangers that being online may bring to our kids, but for many kids it may be a lifeline. Think of children who may be marginalized in their ‘real life’ because of their sexual orientation, political beliefs, or maybe for being neurodivergent. There is evidence that these children may find a community online and that can be immensely beneficial for them. 

What is the bottom line?

Smartphones and social media have risks as well as benefits. From the research available, we can’t blame the decline of children’s mental health solely on smartphone use. Doing this is too simplistic and puts a lot of fear and pressure on already pressured and scared parents.

Screen use (as long as the content is age-appropriate) is not inherently bad. Ideally, we want to find a balance where our children can use their screens, play indoors and outdoors, do their homework, and spend time with friends and relatives. Like everything in life, moderation is key. 

In summary, keep screen time in moderation and select content wisely. Be aware of your child’s ‘online life’ so you can help them to deal with the risks that it brings. Let’s be involved in our children’s lives: whether it is online or offline. 

I hope you find this information useful. As always, if you need more support, please contact your REC Parenting therapist. Email us any comment at: hello@recparenting.com

Much love,

Ana and the REC Parenting Team

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