With the COVID-19 virus triggering drastic government action and grave concern across the world, one begins to wonder how far society will go to deal with an apparent health crisis. A contagious virus turned global pandemic provides an excuse to trigger instant societal changes and freedoms sacrificed. But if you and the kids are planning to while away time in quarantine catching up with social media, it may not be the best idea in terms of physical or mental health.
Consider that suicide rates among teens in the U.S. are currently at their highest recorded level, with the CDC reporting that the youth suicide rate has increased by 56% between 2007–2017. According to the agency, suicide among those aged 10-24 grew from 6.8 to 10.6 per 100,000 persons over the same ten-year period, becoming the second leading cause of death for that age group.
Reports of mental illness among young people are also on the rise. “Any pediatrician who has practiced for 20 years or more knows that primary care has changed almost beyond recognition, with an ever greater number of patients coming to the office with anxiety or depression,” Dr. Michael Grosso, chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital, told HealthDay.com. “Counseling and psychiatric resources in many locales have been overwhelmed by the need. General pediatricians are called on more and more to try to fill these gaps themselves. What is going on?”
While it remains unknown precisely what has caused this rise in youth suicide and mental anguish, some are pointing to the emergence of mobile devices and social media.
Teens Dependent on Devices
Children today are the first digital natives – people who have never known a world without this technology. The next generation is growing up heavily dependent on mobile devices from a young age. A recently released study by U.K. research group Childwise illustrated just how reliant young people are becoming on phones and tablets. According to the report, just over half of children in the U.K. (one does not imagine the U.S. results would differ significantly) now own a cell phone by the age of seven, 90% have one by age 11, and by the teenage years, ownership becomes “almost universal.” Children spend about three hours and 20 minutes on the devices each day.
Of the children surveyed, 39% said they could not live without their phone, 44% said they would be “uncomfortable” if they were without a signal, and 42% said they were “constantly worried” about running out of battery power. Over half of the respondents, 57%, said they wouldn’t know what to do if their phone were missing, and 57% also admitted they always sleep with their phone by their bed. Teens of 15 and 16 years of age were the most worried about being without their phones.
Children Suffering from Sleep Shortage
At the same time, U.K. hospitals have seen a surge of young people admitted for sleep disorders. Figures for under-16s rose from 6,549 in 2012-13 to 11,313 in 2018-19, found The Guardian. As well as breathing difficulties caused by childhood obesity, founder of children’s sleep consultancy firm The Sleep Sanctuary, Rachael Taylor, told the paper that reliance on technology could be a factor in the sleep deprivation, saying:
“The blue light emitted from phone, tablet, computer, and TV screens disrupts natural melatonin production, which inhibits sleep. I’m increasingly seeing more and more young children sent to bed with a screen to help them fall asleep when it is, in fact, disrupting their sleep and making falling asleep more difficult.”
The majority of disorders involved sleep apnea caused by obesity, and Vicki Dawson of The Children’s Sleep Charity added that lack of sleep could fuel weight problems:
“What isn’t recognized is that poor sleep quality can be a driver for it [obesity], impacting on the release of hormones that manage appetite and hunger.”
Both experts acknowledged that anxiety could affect sleep, with Taylor saying the apparent rise in mental illness among young people could be “attributed to the increasing pressures and expectations placed on our young people, an over-reliance on social media, and the creation of a 24/7 culture.”
According to U.S. non-profit organization The Child Mind Institute (CMI), teens who spend three or more hours a day – about the average amount – online are 28% more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep per night. Those who visited social media sites every day were 19% more likely to get insufficient sleep. Teens who get less than seven hours of sleep per night are 68% more likely to show risk factors for suicide, and those who get inadequate sleep are also twice as likely to experience symptoms of depression, asserts the institute.
In terms of mental health issues, the CMI states that increased screentime has both positive and negative impacts on developing brains. Risky behaviors such as drinking, sexual activity, and drug use are reportedly down among teens, yet anxiety and depression are up. Heavy use of social media resulted in increased reports of unhappiness by 56%, and depression risk by 27%.
Link Between Phone Use and Distress?
A review of studies highlighted scientific research into the mental health effects of digital tech on teens. Recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, this review “suggests an association between excessive smartphone and social media use and mental distress and suicidality among adolescents.” The survey also reported: “High proportions of youth engage in heavy smartphone use and media multitasking, with resultant chronic sleep deprivation, and negative effects on cognitive control, academic performance and socioemotional functioning.”
According to the same review: “the proportion of [U.S.] young people between the ages of 13 and 17 years who have a smartphone has reached 89%, more than doubling over a 6-year period.” It also found that “70% of teenagers use social media multiple times per day, up from a third of teens in 2012.” The survey additionally found that social media use was associated with “body image concerns and disordered eating.” One study found that “female participants reported more negative mood after just 10 minutes of browsing their Facebook account.”
The survey noted, “several cross-sectional studies have shown that high proportions of youth appear to be addicted to their smartphones.” Multiple studies, according to the review, had suggested such reliance could be linked to higher rates of suicidal tendencies and self-harm among young people.
Though Dr. Elia Abi-Jaoude, head psychiatrist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto and lead author of the review, has called the evidence that digital technology impacts young minds “pretty convincing,” not all agree. A January review published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found little conclusive in the studies it surveyed.
Whatever the causes of increasing youth health issues, families can certainly take action if they think screentime is negatively affecting young members. The Canadian review suggests several tactics, such as:
- Adults model phone-free time in front of kids.
- Adults can discuss appropriate smartphone use with teens and together create boundaries to minimize risks.
- A reduction in social media use rather than eradicating it – “Given the importance of engaging youth in mitigating potential harms from social media, a prohibitionist approach would be counterproductive,” the authors suggest.
- Use resources and tools such as the American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Use Plan and information from the Center for Humane Technology.
The researchers also noted that, like adults, many teens think they spend too much time on their devices and intend to cut down on screentime. “Encouragingly, youth are increasingly recognizing the negative impact of social media on their lives and starting to take steps to mitigate it,” said the study.
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next week to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.
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