Technology has many benefits when used responsibly: It can help us connect with others, find answers to questions and can even help improve productivity. But as rates of depression rise in adolescents, many wonder if screens and social media are negatively affecting our children's well-being.
Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, says the answer isn't a clear-cut yes or no. "We want answers and explanations, so it's easy to blame feelings of sadness, hopelessness and anxiety among teens to increased tech use," he explains. "But it's rarely just one culprit."
Dr. Westers explores the connection between technology and mental health – and shares tips for encouraging healthy and balanced digital habits.
The rise and risk of loneliness in an age of connection
A 2018 study of adults by health insurer Cigna found that loneliness has reached "epidemic levels" in the U.S. – and that young adults are more lonely and in poorer health than the elderly.
We all know anxiety and depression can affect our physical and mental health. Many people are surprised to learn loneliness can have the same effect. One study found that loneliness has a similar impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes each day.
"People are wired for connection," Dr. Westers explains. "Without connection, we can feel lonely, which can eventually make us feel depressed, and then we run the risk of premature death."
But is technology at fault? Dr. Westers is hesitant to point the finger at any one thing. "Technology can certainly contribute to or exacerbate existing feelings, but it's more important to teach healthy, balanced tech habits and maintain good communication with your children, instead of banning all technology use."
To improve mental health, teach good digital health
Dr. Westers shares that technology can offer many benefits – but it depends on how you use it.
"When we use it to reach out and connect with others, or to discover and learn something new, then those are great, productive uses of social media and technology," he says. "But when we become a passive audience to newsfeeds and posts, it can create negative feelings, including those of loneliness and depression."
To help avoid or minimize feelings of loneliness, stress or anxiety, Dr. Westers recommends teaching children three important aspects of digital health:
1. Digital hygiene
Teens who use technology for more than an hour or two a day are more likely to report feeling depressed, lonely or anxious. That's one of many reasons why setting boundaries and limits on technology can go a long way in helping children form a healthy relationship with technology.
"It's important for parents to set an example, and that can be really hard," Dr. Westers admits. "If the rule is no phones at dinnertime, then mom and dad should also put their phones away, or teens may not respect the rule."
Dr. Westers recommends that parents work together with teens to collaboratively set rules. "Parents ultimately have the final say, but when parents and teens come together to develop rules, expectations and consequences, then teens are more likely to understand and follow those rules," he says.
Dr. Westers suggests parents discuss the following rules with their teens:
- Establish "no phone" times. For many families, this includes dinnertime and before and during bedtime.
- Limit technology by balancing it with non-tech activities. This doesn't need to include time spent completing schoolwork, but it should include phone, video games or watching TV.
- Try a tech-free day. Pick a day during the week that works best for your family and try putting phones away for a solid 24 hours. This helps break everyone of the tech habit and can foster creativity and connection.
- Take technology out of the bedroom. Research has shown that technology can disrupt sleep. Keep TVs, phones, tablets and laptops out of bedrooms to promote better sleep, which can ultimately help reduce feelings of sadness and anxiety.
2. Digital etiquette
"Parents teach their children how to be polite – saying please and thank you – and to use basic manners when talking to people face to face," Dr. Westers says. "The same should be done with online behavior."
Digital etiquette can help children avoid and recognize cyber bullying, and what they should do if they spot it among their friends. For instance, sarcasm can be easily misinterpreted online and perceived as cyberbullying. Sarcasm is not typically well received because it lacks the elements of tone, volume and facial expression that young people often forget about when communicating with others online or through text. An example of good digital etiquette is teaching your child to use sarcasm carefully or not at all.
Also, not every message, comment, or text requires a response – at least not immediately and especially not when angry. Refraining from responding immediately is a skill to be learned and practiced, and parents can help their child build this skill over time.
Learning to use good digital etiquette can help your child maintain healthy connections with people in person and online, thereby decreasing the chance of feeling rejected and lonely.
3. Digital safety
"Another important aspect of digital health is talking about how to be safe online," Dr. Westers advises. "Remember, no matter how mature your child or teen is, they are not immune to making decisions that could put them in risky or potentially dangerous situations."
Some ground rules for online behavior include never meeting anyone in-person that they've met online, not sharing personal information and identifying sites that children are allowed to visit. See more guidelines for online safety.
Establish open communication for emotional health
Beyond teaching digital health, one of the best things parents can do to encourage good mental health is to create open lines of communication. Dr. Westers encourages parents to establish open communication using these tips:
Check in often
Connecting with children can be as simple as asking about their day during family dinnertime or scheduling a special coffee date on the weekend. Time spent together can give parents the opportunity to learn a little more about what's going on with their teen or child, and it helps show the child that parents are available to talk when they need it.
If your child tells you they feel lonely, respond with supporting statements like "I'm sorry you feel that way. How can I help?" Avoid temptation to dismiss feelings by saying things such as "You have plenty of friends. You shouldn't feel lonely."
"Loneliness is an emotion – one we've all felt from time to time," Dr. Westers reminds parents. "You can still feel lonely, even when you're surrounded by people. If your child is sharing his or her feelings, work together to come up with a plan that may help him or her feel better, whether it's an activity you can do together, having a friend come over or having a family member to visit."
Get help if you're concerned about your child
"Few people seek help for mental health problems," Dr. Westers says. "About one in five children and adolescents experience depression, but more than half go untreated. The same goes for anxiety disorders – not everyone gets help or sticks to their treatment plan. Treatment is important because it can improve outcomes now and later in life."
Dr. Westers also cautions parents not to worry every time their child feels sad, depressed or lonely.
"Adolescents can be moody and it's hard for parents to know when children's feelings are normal for their age and when there’s cause for concern," he says. "Parents should trust their instincts and call a professional if they're worried. A psychologist can look at the bigger picture and help identify if there is a bigger issue at play or if a child is experiencing a typical range of emotions."
Children's Health psychologists and psychiatrists can help children and teens manage feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety. Learn more about programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health.
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