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How the pandemic has changed children’s relationships with social media

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Responding to concerns about increased screen time for teens during the pandemic and the potential negative effects of social media use, CU School of Medicine psychology faculty members Jenna Glover, Ph.D. ., Sandra Fritsch, MD, and Merlin Ariefdjohan, Ph.D., reviewed recent studies on children and digital technology, summarizing their findings in an article published this month in the journal North American child and adolescent psychiatric clinics.

We spoke with Glover, a psychologist and director of psychology training at Colorado Children’s Hospital, about the study and the team’s findings.

Q: What have been some of your key findings regarding how children are using social media during the pandemic?

A: In the United States and other countries, rates of anxiety and depression in children have doubled, and even tripled in some places, during the pandemic. So we knew the pandemic was having a big impact on mental health. What interested me was that initially, social media was an important source of connection and finding information for children. Because it was so new and changing rapidly, it was a great place to connect, share information and frustrations, and get support.

I know a lot of parents were very worried, “Oh my god, my kid has so much screen time now,” but what the research found was that kids being online a lot weren’t the important thing. It was how they committed to being online. For example, we know that active drinking can benefit a child’s mental health, and that was certainly the case during the pandemic. If you’re creating content, like creating YouTube videos, or playing with a friend and talking to them while you’re doing it, you’re doing something active. It’s super helpful. If you passively scroll through TikTok or passively watch YouTube videos for three or four hours, it’s toxic to your mental health.

The important point to remember is that the pandemic has meant that we are on the screens a lot more, but it is not the time you spend there; it’s how you use it that really makes the difference. There was a huge upside, during the pandemic, to still being able to interact with peers, see family members, and continue to have those relationships and build those relationships. There were definitely major benefits of social media that were really helpful for a child’s resilience.

Q: What explains this difference? What’s so toxic about scrolling through TikTok videos for hours?

A: One of the benefits of using social media and technology is that it helps children explore their identity and express their identity, which is a developmental task. Social support is also an important aspect of their growth, and this active use enables children to meet both of these developmental tasks. In contrast, with passive use, you are not interacting with anyone; you are not exploring aspects of your identity. One of the things we compared it to is calories. Not all calories are equal. There is good nutrition and there is bad nutrition, and the technology is the same. This passive use is more like junk food. It fills the children, but there is nothing useful or substantial for their growth.

Q: Have there been any other findings regarding the positive or negative effects of increased screen time?

A: One of the other interesting things that comes out of the article is to move away from the idea of ​​specific guidelines in terms of the hours children can be online, and to look more at whether there are basic activities in place to support a child’s well-being. If kids are sleeping, eating, doing chores and homework, and interacting with peers and family, screen time isn’t that important. It’s when these things are disrupted that screen time needs to be looked at to see if that’s what’s disrupting these activities. This is a real turning point in literature. And it’s a shift in our social consciousness that it’s not about hours; it’s more about healthy activities as a base and making sure screen time supports those things, not takes them away.

Q: In a way, is this just an acknowledgment of the importance of the online world for children? Is this screen time part of their life, not a distraction?

A: That’s right. There’s some other interesting research that’s been done recently that has shown that teens, in general, see social media as an incredibly vital part of their lives. They see it as important for expressing who they are and connecting with other people, while parents who were asked about social media see it as a waste of time and a distraction. It’s really important that we don’t downplay the importance of this platform for young people, even though adults don’t see the same value in it, because they’ve grown up in a way that most of the people who raise them—or their caregivers, their doctors, their teachers—did not. It’s part of our life, and you can’t take it away from the kids. It could actually be detrimental to their future progress, education, and professions.

Q: Is it something you see in your patients or the children you deal with, that they have the same kind of relationship with it?

A: Certainly. It is an essential part of their life. There is actually research that shows that when parents try to use the removal of a child’s phone as punishment, it can increase depression and suicidal ideation in children. I see it all the time in my clinical work – it’s how they experience their world. You have to teach them how to do it in a healthy way, but sometimes I think people see that as a dichotomy, like it’s a good thing or a bad thing. But it’s one thing at a time. And it is an essential part of the life of these children.

Q: Is there anything you recommend parents do to communicate with their children about using technology?

A: Families should have ongoing conversations about media use in general and what it means to be a responsible digital citizen. The same way we teach our children to be good global citizens, it’s important to talk about how they present themselves online. It’s important for parents to have explicit conversations about what is and isn’t acceptable to post, and why. And also have conversations about how many different accounts a child has. The more social media accounts they have, the more likely they are to develop anxiety and depression. Having one account is better than having three accounts. Parents need to think about how their child can be online in a moderate and healthy way.

Q: Do you think the pandemic will permanently change how much screen time these kids spend or how they interact with technology and social media?

A: I think this will permanently alter the course of how we use technology and how much time we spend on screens. I think things like snow days will go away, because there will always be a virtual option. It’s going to be ingrained in our lives, for children and adults, for a long time. I don’t think we yet understand the impact this will have on us, positive or negative, but I anticipate it will turn things around and we’ll get more screen time than we’ve ever had. And it will persist. So it’s important to go back to those basic things: do you have those basic habits in your life that are essential for physical and mental health? If these are in place, then if increased screen time is found to have a negative impact, this will be mitigated.

‘Tweens’ increased media use during pandemic summer 2020, study finds

More information:
Jenna Glover et al, #KidsAnxiety and the Digital World, North American Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.chc.2021.06.004

Provided by CU Anschutz Medical Campus

Quote: How the pandemic has changed children’s relationships with social media (January 18, 2022) retrieved January 19, 2022 from

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