Tweens, Teens, Tech and Mental Health

Suicides have been increasing among every age group in the US, but haven risen most steeply among 10- to 14-year-old girls, with a rate that tripled between 1999 and 2017. Girls of color are especially vulnerable: 12.5% of Black and 10.5% of Latinx adolescent girls in grades 9–12 reported having attempted suicide at least once in the past twelve months, as compared to 7.3% of White females and 9.8% of Black, 8.2% of Latino, and 6.1% of White male adolescents. ~Common Sense Media

There’s been an alarming rise in depression, anxiety, and suicide risk among tweens and teens over the past few years. Researchers and advocates alike have expressed growing concerns about the mental health crisis among young people in the United States. Many parents, academics, and health professionals believe heavy technology and social media use is the obvious culprit—but the latest findings tell a more complex and nuanced story of tweens, teens, tech and mental health.

Common Sense Report

Common Sense Media released a report titled “Tweens, Teens, Tech and Mental Health: Coming of Age in an Increasingly Digital, Uncertain, and Unequal World.” The report is co-authored by Michael Robb of Common Sense, and Candice L. Odgers, professor of psychological science at University of California, Irvine. The authors put together an in-depth literature review, combined with essays and commentary from leading experts, advocates, educators, and healthcare practitioners.

“Tweens, Teens, Tech and Mental Health” synthesizes what’s known about the associations between digital technology use and adolescent mental health. Perhaps most importantly, the report provides guidance to identify those who may be disproportionately affected and most vulnerable, signaling when parents should be concerned, and outlining what stakeholders can do to help support these adolescents and improve their mental health outcomes. Here are the report’s key findings:

  • Flipping the script on screen time

Conversations around screen time are changing to focus on how digital technology is being used versus how much. The claim that screen time and social media use is a cause of negative mental health outcomes is uncertain, and identified associations are small, accounting for less than 1% of the differences between adolescents. So, we should focus more on how to best meet the basic educational and social needs of adolescents through digital technology rather than how much time they actually spend online.

  • Girls are more at risk

Social media use is related to worse mental health more frequently among adolescent girls, but it’s not clear whether social media use is a cause of worse mental health, a symptom of it, or both. Recent research shows that (for girls only) early mental health symptoms predict later social media use patterns, but that social media use does not predict later mental health symptoms.

  • Offline risk often precedes and marks online risk

Adolescents with existing vulnerabilities – including those who are especially sensitive to social evaluation, who have “low” status offline, and/or who have a history of victimization or bullying – report more negative online experiences and potentially harmful patterns of social media use.

  • Benefits of digital safety nets

Digital media and technology can and should be a social safety net. In fact, adolescents in certain marginalized cultural groups often report distinct benefits from supportive online communities. But as with other social safety nets, many of the most vulnerable adolescents are unable to reliably access and receive support in digital spaces.

  • Lack of digital mental health tools

The majority of digital mental health tools have not been designed with adolescents in mind. This is a missed opportunity, as digital contact is one of the main ways that counselors and other mental health professionals can reach adolescents.

  • Household socioeconomic status

Mental health disorders emerge from a complex set of social, genetic, and experiential factors, which have varying influence across development and situations, and make it difficult to separate cause from effect. But it’s clear that household socioeconomic status is one of the strongest factors shaping both adolescents’ online experiences and their mental health.

Conclusion

When the coronavirus pandemic upended our lives, it introduced new social distancing requirements, public health challenges, and social unrest. Almost overnight, peer networks, social activities, school and work were all pushed online.

At the same time, the Center for Disease Control’s morbidity and mortality weekly report showed that there was a “22.3 percent spike in emergency room visits for potential suicides by children aged 12 to 17 in the summer of 2020 compared to 2019.”

Coincidence or not? More research is needed to understand the complex relationship between tweens, teens, tech and mental health.

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