Screen Time and Mental Health – What We’ve Learned From a Year Online

A parent recently shared, “I know these times are still hard but I think my teenager’s mood is way beyond languishing. I’m really worried about her. And ALL THIS TIME on her phone doesn’t seem to help anymore. We just aren’t on the other side of this yet are we?” 

This parent isn’t alone in her concern about the mash-up of adolescence, isolation, and increased screen time this year. She also isn’t alone in lamenting that despite a cautious transition back to school and activities for some, the experience and effects of COVID are far from over. Of course, when it comes to the relationships between social media and mental health, our concerns far predate the pandemic. But in the past year, as our relationship with screens has intensified and rates of depressive symptoms are on the rise among adolescents, these questions take on new urgency.

In many ways, the pandemic has pinpointed the real complexity of young people’s relationship with their devices. While news headlines love dramatic titles about the perils of social media, the reality, as always, is a lot more complicated. During COVID, parents are appreciating both the strengths and vulnerabilities of their kids’ digital habits as they play out in real time. Some parents who formerly wrung their hands about the perils of gaming have expressed gratitude for the protective power of this COVID-safe collaborative activity. Others can’t help but notice their teen’s slow, unhealthy withdrawal into endless scrolling. Still others can’t imagine the year without the happy distractions of shows, movies, and other storytelling.

Mental Health Awareness Month

Teen girl sitting on couch looking at her iPhone

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It also marks over a year of living through a global pandemic where adolescent lives and learning migrated onto screens in unprecedented ways. This month provides important opportunities to engage in stigma busting, mental health advocacy, and investing in systems online and offline that support adolescent wellbeing. 

It is also a month where we can pause, reflect, and learn what will help us better support our kids’ mental health online and offline. Based on some of the initial data from this past year, here are four takeaways that can be our guides:

Many teens are not alright. But let’s not rush to blame screens alone.

The latest Common Sense Media report on digital media and mental health does reveal a substantial increase in the number of teens who are experiencing depressive symptoms. Nearly 40% of 14-22 year olds reported experiencing moderate to severe depression. These numbers indicate the gravity of the mental health crisis that follows in COVID’s wake. 

Taking these numbers seriously requires that we resist simple explanations.  We knew coming into the pandemic that screen time accounted for only a small amount of variation in overall wellbeing and is shaped by how and when they use technology. On the other hand, we have lots of evidence that things like racism, economic inequality and poverty, health, and social isolation are powerful drivers of mental health outcomes. It’s not that digital habits don’t have an impact at all – but we would be wise to look at screens in context.  What are the social and personal strengths and risks they magnify and accelerate? For example, the percentage of teens who say they “often” see racist content in social media has nearly doubled in the past two years – content that usually mirrors racism that young people are experiencing offline as well. 

Supporting adolescent mental health as we emerge from the pandemic will not be as simple as unplugging chromebooks or looking up from iPhones. It will also mean naming and tackling the key determinants of adolescent wellbeing including uprooting white supremacy culture, reducing inequality, investing in warm and caring relationships, and ensuring access to mental health services online and offline.

Young people are seeking mental health information and support online.

We already knew that teens were actively engaging with the Internet for mental health support from peers and professionals before the pandemic. Now we see that it has been a critical lifeline. Unfortunately, algorithms and search engines are not set up with adolescent mental health in mind. While there are incredible resources for healthy coping and healing there are also plenty of influencers that promote the opposite. For example, when it comes to disordered eating behaviors (something that appears to be accelerating among adolescents during the pandemic) and body image alone, social media scrolling can not only increase body dissatisfaction but also give access to “pro ana” communities that promote disordered eating. 

As parents, we can normalize that it’s okay to not be okay, and get ahead of the algorithms by making sure that our teens have reliable and accurate mental health resources online, apps for skill building, and access to cultural supports and professional help.  

The influence of social media is magnified for some kids.

While the overall size of the effect of social media on depression or anxiety is fairly small (and sometimes even protective), the latest data indicates that young people who are struggling are most sensitive to its effects – for better and for worse. For example, young people living with severe depression are more likely to rely heavily on social media for support and advice and more likely than their peers to say that it makes them anxious, lonely or depressed. 

This means that paying attention to your teen matters more than any data or study. If your child entered COVID with significant mental health challenges or has developed them this year, it’s wise to pay closer attention to the outsized role that technology may be playing in their wellbeing.

Keep the focus on mental health, not just your child’s devices.

While we worry that all this screen time is causing depression, for some teens it is an attempt to cope with it. It’s hard to disentangle whether social media contributes to depression or whether depressed youth use social media more often (or some combination of both). 

Regardless, if you see signs of mental illness, this is a good time to talk about it and widen the team of people who are supporting your child. It could very well be that shifting tech habits or a family media plan are part of their path towards wellbeing. But if we don’t work to understand the larger emotional landscape, simply taking away their phone might just result in a really overwhelmed kid with few coping skills and no treatment plan. In consultation with a team you trust, you can consider digital habits as one component of the road to wellbeing.

As we work to understand and address the double crisis of COVID and mental health this year, there is no doubt that conversations about screen time will be in the mix. Many young people are eager to log off and run back out into the world towards their friends. For others, the mental health impacts of this year will make this transition more challenging. 

Forward together.

It is becoming more and more clear that emerging from COVID is not a switch we turn on and off. Likewise, good mental health is not a thing that we can just easily power up or power down. And our role when it comes to screen time is not just about plugging in or unplugging devices. Our kids need us to acknowledge the complexity of this moment. They also need us to trust the simplicity of what is needed most right now – showing up and navigating these online and offline challenges together. 

We all need extra support making the shift towards teamwork and partnership as we navigate digital challenges and set boundaries where they matter most for our kids. That’s why we created a self-paced online course that walks you through the essentials – step by step. We’d love to see you in our online class CONNECTED: How To Show Up For Your Kids in the Digital Age or send us a note and tell us what’s been most rewarding and most concerning about your kid’s intense relationship with screens this past year. We are in this together.