Children’s mental health and the digital world: how to strike the right balance

Technology has increasingly blurred the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds. This has brought about dramatic changes in everyday life and changed the way children and adolescents live, socialize, move and learn.

This was never more evident than at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent exponential increase in technology and internet usage. Global estimates suggest that one in three internet users is a child.

Digital technology exposes children to information, social connections, education, online support groups and professional help.

Yet children who engage in the digital world are also exposed to various threats. These include inappropriate content (violent or sexual), unwanted contact with strangers, online bullying and victimization.

The South African Child Gauge is an annual publication which aims to report on and monitor the situation of children in South Africa, in particular the realization of their rights. This year, the theme of the report is child and youth mental health.

Lately, there has been growing public debate and concern that digital technologies may contribute to mental health issues such as depression, self-harm, and suicide in adolescents and children.

To contribute to the collective understanding of the experiences and consequences of growing up in a digital world, our chapter of the Child Gauge report aims to interrogate the impact of digital worlds on children’s mental health. We also want to make policy and practice recommendations.

Lily: I asked my daughter what she wanted for her second birthday and she said “people”.

How South African children are using digital technology

South Africa has approximately 38 million internet users (1.5 million households). Children often go online on smartphones, use mobile data at home, and online engagement increases as children get older.

Mobile phone plans in South Africa also provide free or cheaper access to social media platforms, making social media usage far more prevalent than any other online activity, boosting content with which children interact online.

The relationship between digital technology and mental health is complex.

Understanding the impact of the digital environment on children’s mental health requires a balanced consideration of the potential risks and benefits of the online world.

Not all exposures to online threats cause harm. For example, participating in a public Facebook group could put a child at risk of sexual grooming, as adults sometimes pose as children. But it won’t necessarily result in harm if a child can prevent, anticipate and deal with the bullying attempt.

Teens struggling with mental health issues offline may be more likely than others to seek out harmful content online. This can amplify their mental health issues and lead to self-harm. But social media can also provide mental health information, support and professional help.

It is therefore useful to examine how to foster the (digital) resilience of children to understand the risks they are likely to encounter at different ages and to know when they are at risk. They also need to know what to do and how to recover from negative experiences.

Must read: “Talk about it like you talk about physical health”: 5 ways to protect teen mental health

Keeping children safe online

Realizing the benefits of technology for children’s mental health and well-being while limiting exposure to online threats requires a holistic approach.

This includes acknowledging parents and caregivers, educators, government regulators, technology companies and children’s role in promoting children’s mental health and wellbeing in all aspects of their online engagement.

Parents often think that banning social media and the internet will keep their children safe, but that is not the case. Restricting internet use can result in children being socially excluded or prevented from accessing mental health services or information.

While parental controls and monitoring technologies have their place, internal safeguards such as empathy, resilience and values ​​are more powerful and serve children throughout their lives, whether online or offline. .

Parents need to engage in an open dialogue with their children. This will build rapport and allow children to open up about using social media.

Parents should also model good citizenship (social literacy, community engagement, responsibility, respect for the rights and perspectives of others) and healthy digital habits for their children.

The technology industry has a huge role to play in designing products with the best interests of the child in mind.

The confidentiality of young users’ data must be protected and their right to freedom of expression must be preserved. Systems must be in place to deal with violations of children’s rights when they occur.

School policies, regulations and guidelines must balance the protection of children with their rights to privacy and the use of technology in an age-appropriate manner. These policies should promote the positive use of digital technology while taking steps to restrict access to harmful content.

Training for educators is also needed so that they can identify children who show symptoms of trauma or distress as a result of online harm and can refer them to psychosocial support services.

Last but not least, children must have access to information, education and training to support the development of their digital literacy skills. They need to feel confident to ask for help when needed and know that it will be provided.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article.

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