I have been thinking a great deal about the connection between social media and mental health. More and more news stories and research articles are coming out discussing the perils of too much screen time for children and adolescents. We are now starting to see more studies being done on the correlation of adult use of technology and wellness. As technology becomes more intimately integrated into our lives, I am beginning to see its impact, positive and negative, across the lifespan.
The impetus for this blog came from a comment my daughter made last week when she came home from school. She told me that some of her friends have cell phones. I asked how she knew this and she said they pull them out of their backpacks to see if their mom or dad called. This seems reasonable enough, except for one small problem. My daughter and her friends are in 2nd grade.
From my viewpoint, it is a problem for small children to have their own cell phones, even if they are just for calling their caregivers. Where else would a 7 year old be but at school in the safe hands of the educators? What could they be doing other than learning and having fun with their teachers and friends? And why do we not trust the people whose hands we leave our children in every day to call us if there is any kind of problem?
Additionally, the primary task of childhood is to learn and develop friendships. If children are allowed too much screen time, they cannot learn to have strong friendships, problem solve, and use all the creativity the young brain is capable of. They seek to be distracted constantly. I have been in many public places where I see babies and toddlers with phones and tablets in front of them. Yes, they are being stimulated by what is on the screen, but they are not taking in what is happening all around them.
And when young children believe that what is happening on screen is more interesting than real life, they become adolescents and emerging adults who are consistently dissatisfied with their own lives. They grow to believe that everyone else is more attractive and successful, and those people are leading happier and more exciting lives. Real life is not stimulating enough for them. As a result, they become depressed and anxious. The research is clear on this.
This can and does last into adulthood. Someone shared with me a story about her own husband. They were watching a movie together one evening. With each commercial, this person saw her husband picked up his phone. She did not say anything in the moment, but decided to see if this would continue to the end of the movie. It did. Every time a commercial came on, her husband picked up his phone. She finally had to ask him why it was so difficult for him to “just be”.
Our phones, tablets, laptops, social media, Netflix, etc are all useful tools. But I want to encourage all of us to think about why we use these tools and how often. When we hand our children a tablet at dinner or in the cart at the grocery story, why? If your adolescent spends more time on social media than in face to face contact with friends, what is going on there? If you find yourself picking up your phone during commercials or in traffic, what might you be avoiding? If you partner comments that you seem more interested in Facebook than being with them, how true is that? We are generally looking to be distracted from stress, boredom, loneliness, sadness, and many other “negative emotions”.
For 1 week, I challenge you to track how much recreational time you and your family members or partner spend on technology. You might be surprised by the number of minutes (or hours).
The impact of technology on our lives is substantial and we do not yet know what the future brings in terms of the benefits and costs to a more technologically advanced society. For now, evaluate closely how you use technology, how your children are using it, what you are modeling for them, and its impact on all of your relationships and your own well being. Is your usage consistent with what you value and what you know brings you joy?