Val Wroblewski via Flickr/CreativeCommons
Source: Val Wroblewski via Flickr/CreativeCommons

Technology: Is It Responsible for Increasing Kids’ Anxiety?

The increasing incidence of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young people is evident everywhere, and technology is often cited as a major reason for this disturbing trend.

Cyberbullying is an obvious concern. There are too many cases of kids driven to suicide or other kinds of violence against themselves and others, in response to online gossip, photos, and other targeted postings.

Social media—even without the bullying component—is often blamed for increasing anxiety among kids. For a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, Benoit Denizet-Lewis interviewed psychiatrist Stephanie Eken, who said, “Anxious teenagers from all backgrounds are relentlessly comparing themselves with their peers, and the results are almost uniformly distressing.” Kids agree with Eken’s analysis, and take it farther: “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without but that’s making us crazy.”

The Solution: Technological Mindfulness, and Balance  

Some observers recommend avoiding technology. Ruth Whippman, author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks recommends that anxious people stay away from self-help apps that promise well-being. Choose to spend your time with other people, she advises, not with a happiness app.  

Others, while agreeing that social connections are critically important to mental health, accept that technology is now a part of our lives, and recommend a more mindful approach, both for parents and for kids. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary co-directs the Stress, Anxiety, and Resilience Research Center at Hunter College, City University of New York, and has developed "Personal Zen," a widely-praised app that helps people monitor and regulate their anxiety. She describes “a tension between our digital lives and our pursuit of mindfulness and wellness.” Like many other experts, she sees the main problem not as information overload, but rather as “filter failure,” or trouble focusing our attention consciously, productively, and thoughtfully.

In a technology-loaded ecosystem that’s brilliantly designed to attract and rivet our attention, how can we take back ownership of our attention economies? Dennis-Tiwary says that mindfulness may be the most powerful tool available, and adds that “A rich inner life protects us from the constant siren call of ‘the grass is greener on the other side,’ and ‘everyone but me has a perfect life,’ which is the natural consequence of living super-connected, exquisitely-curated, social media-driven lives.”  

In Lightweb Darkweb, long-time child advocate Raffi Cavoukian makes a strong case that young children should never have unsupervised online access and that older children and teens need guidance and rules that enable them to use technology and their time wisely.

Recommendations:

  1. Be mindful about your own use of technology. When you’re with your family, focus on them, and not on your screens.
  2. Ensure balance in your child’s life, including:

    Family activities
    Lots of outdoor play time with other kids
    Community-building social time
    Reading, writing
    Engagement in the arts
    Sleep

  3. Respect your child’s time and attention. Help your child or adolescent become selective about their techno-activities. Some activities are useful and beneficial, in moderation; others waste time or worse. Online games are more likely to result in problems than other activities, so monitor that carefully

  4. Restrict online access. With children under twelve, don’t allow unsupervised time online. Disable location settings. Teach kids to behave responsibly and kindly online, just like in the real world. Technology is best used in family rooms in the house--the kitchen, living room, places where others are present--but for sure, take technology out of the child or adolescent’s bedroom, at least for a few hours before bedtime, and through the night.

  5. Be flexible. Each adult, each child, and each teenager is unique, with individual needs and preferences, and these evolve over time. Sometimes it’s good to bend or change the family’s techno-rules in response to changing demands and situations.

For more on technology, anxiety, mindfulness, and kids:

Why Are More Teenagers than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis 

Smartphones, Cyberbullying Seen as Possible Causes of Rising Teen Suicide Rate,” by Jericka Duncan

Youth Suicide Rates Are Rising. School and The Internet May Be to Blame,” by Lara Korte 

Cyberbullying Facts and Statistics,” by TeenSafe 

Happiness is Other People,” by Ruth Whippman 

Between a Cyborg and a Hard Place,” by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary  

Digital Mental Health,” by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary  

Personal Zen, the App for Reducing Stress and Anxiety,” by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary  

Trying to Get the Kids to Put Down Those Phones? Here’s Help,” by Katherine Hobson

Families Managing Media 

How to Reconnect our Digitally Distracted Kids,” by Tom Kersting 

Screenwise, by Devorah Heitner https://www.raisingdigitalnatives.com/

Lightweb Darkweb: Three Reasons to Reform Social Media Be4 It Re-Forms Us, by Raffi Cavoukian 

Is the Web a Vast Sociological Experiment? Raffi Urges Internet Reform to Keep Kids Safe,” by Marilyn Price-Mitchell

Parenting Teenagers: Build Community; Go Online; Play Video Games; Chat Online: Learn to Manage Emotions,” by Dona Matthews

Studies of Teens Challenge Us to Keep Learning,” by Marilyn Price-Mitchell

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster 

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