Sad teen with a phone in her bedroom

Could your child be engaging in unhealthy or harmful behavior? According to the article, “Smartphones, social media use and youth mental health” released Monday by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, https://bit.ly/2UGQB4y, since 2011, increasing numbers of North American youth are experiencing mental distress and seeking treatment for mental health issues. The rising numbers correlate sharply with the steep rise in smartphone and social media use among teens.

The study notes that the percentage of Ontario teens “reporting moderate to serious mental distress” grew from 24% in 2013 to 39% in 2017. The numbers of self-reported depression, major depressive episodes and suicidal thoughts over the past two decades are even more startling in the U.S., where nearly 90% of children between ages 13 and 17 have smartphones.

Looking at 20 separate studies, the review shows that youth who spend excessive time on social media platforms like Facebook have increased concerns about body image; they experience more negative moods and increased urges to alter their appearances. Seven separate studies indicate that too much internet time can lead to self-harm and suicidal behavior among some adolescents. And, in many cases, when youth express thoughts of harming themselves on social media, the responses from other viewers tend more often to applaud the harmful thoughts than offer words of encouragement or urge the victim to seek help. Too often, social media tends to romanticize self-harm among adolescents and children.

Excessive smartphone use is even interfering with the ability of many teens to socialize face to face. The tendency to keep looking at one’s cellphone, even when in the presence of others, is now referred to has “phubbing” — short for phone-snubbing. Unfortunately, the phenomenon doesn’t just affect children — too many adults are guilty of phubbing as well.

Internet addiction isn’t only affecting our teens waking hours. Nearly 64% of adolescents are getting inadequate sleep. Studies show that a lack of sleep due to internet use during night hours may be one of the biggest contributing factors in the increasing numbers of teen mental health issues.

What can be done? The review acknowledges that adolescents today have never known a world without social media. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that online relationships have now become a “part of typical adolescent development.” So, the idea of totally banning a teen’s smartphone use would likely be counterproductive. But parents have every right to set boundaries and insist on healthy social media habits. A family friend insists on internet-free bedrooms and collects her children’s smartphones before they turn in for the evening.

If you have teens in your life, read the study. And it wouldn’t hurt any of us to review our own social media habits.

— Robin Beres

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