Dean McCoubrey

Schools, parents “Need to take it seriously”: World Mental Health Day

On World Mental Health Day (10 October), supported by the World Health Organisation, The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) notes that nine percent of all teenage deaths in the country are by suicide, adding that suicide is the second leading and fastest growing cause of death among young South Africans in the 15-25 age group.

Cassey Chambers, SADAG’s Operations Director, says 90 percent of adolescents who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness – frequently, depression. While some people do have a genetic tendency towards depression, others develop it as a result of loneliness and social isolation, bullying, loss, abuse, and conflict. And there’s a catalyst that this generation is having to contend with – social media. 

The first detailed study of how social media affects the mental health of young users has found that increased participation in social media networks (such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp and others) was associated with increased psychological distress – with the effects almost twice as severe among girls. MySociaLife, South Africa’s premier social media and online safety educator, is seeing the effects of social media first-hand when it engages with teens and tweens about their online life during its 10-module schools program.

“Teenagers who spend more than three hours a day on social media are more likely to develop mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, aggression, and antisocial behaviour.”

“Students in ever program we run tell us about the pressure they feel around life online, and many agree that  it bends their character or values, leading to inappropriate or out of character behaviour,” says Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife which supports parents, teachers and psychologists to help children feel safer and behave smarter online. 

“This age group is not adequately equipped to manage the complexity of the varied risks, temptations and dangers online. When parents and teachers understand the development stages of kids and how these devices and platforms influence their neurochemistry at this vulnerable and immature stage, we can all start to grasp why this is happening,” he says.

“The detrimental effects of social media can be reduced by educating not only teens and pre-teens, but also parents, teachers and school counsellors,” he adds. “We created four programs, and not just a student program, because everyone has to help. Not enough people understand the complexity of how humans react and respond to social media, and what the consequences of those responses can be.” 

A study published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal highlights that ‘teenagers who spend more than three hours a day on social media are more likely to develop mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, aggression, and antisocial behaviour.’

“This can worsen the device or game or social platform is removed suddenly, leading to actual withdrawal symptoms typical of any addiction,” adds McCoubrey.

Furthermore, young people explore the internet on their own without the one-on-one guidance of parents or teachers, and even if filters are applied, they may stumble onto content that they’re not yet ready to process. Whether it’s being exposed to adult content, or feeling left out of social events that friends are posting about, or cyber bullying and intimidation, young people often have emotional experiences about online content that they don’t know how to deal with.

They often suppress their feelings or feel embarrassed or scared to talk about what they’ve seen, which in turn leads to emotional withdrawal or even depression. Between 30 and 40% of teens and pre-teens say they cannot share their concerns with their parents, aligning with global data and emphasizing that schools and parents should take children’s social media experiences much more seriously.” 

McCoubrey buys into technology completely, which he says is changing the world in so many life-changing, creative, entertaining, and philanthropic ways, but the fact remains children need digital education.

“Even if you’re cynical, and don’t believe  the safety and mental health concerns, being educated about online issues will help them to be smarter digital citizens which will in turn help them to differentiate themselves in the future. If South Africa is to achieve it’s Fourth Industrial Revolution ‘promises,’ then programs like MySociaLife will need to be ubiquitous.

“We are one of the few organizations which know about the reality of what’s happening in this age group. We see and hear from learners who are struggling with what they experience online, whether it be something thrilling or shocking. The problem is that parents, teachers and guardians can be the last to know,” he explains. 

World Mental Health Day gives parents and children the opportunity to start conversations about mental illness, emphasising that there is no shame in struggling with mental health, while re-establishing those vital real-life connections. With 75 percent of teen suicides having spoken about their intention before proceeding, there’s a strong possibility that parents, teachers and friends that listen carefully to depressed teens may indeed be able to act in time to save a life. 

”So many kids are so”social” and yet so many are also feeling alone – it’s the great paradox of social media. We will look back on this time, in a decade or two I think, and ask why we didn’t prepare our children more carefully about life online,” he concludes.

Parents and teachers fail to fully understand life online: Digital Citizenship Week South Africa

This week, 14 – 18 October, it’s Digital Citizenship Week South Africa (#DigCitWeek), but, as we witness online, it’s a relevant concept that’s important year-round and applies to both ‘tweenagers’ and adults. Media stories appear on a daily basis of cyberbullying, sexting, privacy breaches and mental health concerns relating to smart devices and social media.

Teens and tweens require a framework of how to be intelligent, sensitive, and resilient digital citizens.

According to, digital citizens think critically about what they see online, understand the benefits and risks of sharing information, and balance screen time with other activities. But digital citizens require guidance — they’re taught by parents and teachers to be responsible, safer, smart and ethical digital citizens. Currently, there are very few digital citizenship programs in South Africa.

Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, SA’s Premier Digital Life Skills Program, explains, “It took us three years to build our 10 different modules, given the extensive aspects of life online that needed to be covered. We use an international digital citizenship framework as our base, and then add some of the country’s top specialists, psychologists, mental health advocates and researchers. Consider the extent of the issues – the psychological impact on our children, the ever-evolving phone settings which need attention, the law, the vast landscape of apps, games and social platforms to cover – MySociaLife studies this every day, and it’s still a job to keep up. How will teachers be able to teach this topic at the rate of change in technology? Many students tell us that most adults don’t have a clue about their life online.”

Education requires programs like this to provide teens and tweens with a framework of how to be intelligent, sensitive, and resilient digital citizens – at home, their parents admit to being uncertain about how to teach it too,” says McCoubrey.

MySociaLife approaches the training by supporting all those in the chain of guiding teens and tweens – with four different programs that inform parents, teachers, school counsellors, and Grade 4 to 11 students with the end goal of helping children feel safer and behave smarter online. “This is not just about safety, though, it’s about the foundational skills to excel once you have the basic awareness. With the incessant headlines around The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), as well as reduced jobs due to AI and Machine Learning, those that are aware and conscious digital citizens will be a prized asset in the 2030 workplace.”

Aside from in-school training, McCoubrey speaks locally and internationally on the skills our children will need in The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Digital Life Skills and Digital Citizenship and will next be presenting at The World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar, November 19-21 – a global reference point in new approaches to education.

So how does one teach good digital citizenship? One could start with these great guidelines, from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE):

1.     A good citizen advocates for equal human rights for all.

2.     A good citizen treats others courteously and never bullies.

3.     A good citizen does not damage others’ property or person.

4.     A good citizen communicates clearly, respectfully, and with empathy.

5.     A good citizen actively pursues an education and develops habits for lifelong learning.

6.     A good citizen spends and manages money responsibly.

7.     A good citizen upholds basic human rights of privacy, freedom of speech, etc.

8.     A good citizen protects self and others from harm.

9.     A good citizen proactively promotes their own physical and mental health.

“These guidelines are a good start and we have a specific set of our own that we have carefully sculpted, but smartphones, social media and online safety evolve faster than any other part of the school curriculum. What’s trending this term is over next term so it’s more about how we uphold these guidelines within the context of what’s trending, or what we are using daily, that matters,” says McCoubrey.

“Our ten modules – critical thinking to bullying, to digital footprint, and mental health, among others – unpack the prizes and pitfalls to thousands of students on a term-by-term basis. Any digital citizenship program requires frequency, returning time and time again, and building trust with this (often sceptical) audience. The irony is that, while these learners know a lot about the technology, they lack the critical thinking and life skills training, and how that is realistically illustrated to them with regard to their daily interactions on these platforms. It requires someone outside the school, an external voice – someone who approaches it differently – and has the knowledge of what’s trending to capture teens and pre-teens attention.”

Digital Citizenship Week South Africa is a call to action to SA schools to ask themselves if they have sufficient digital education in place. Is it covering the diversity of issues, and does the instructor have a credible voice, the buy-in, and the experience?

“These are fundamental learning blocks for a generation that is growing up online, and will enter a high-tech workplace. It’s an absolute no-brainer to get started on this as soon as possible and to do it right,” McCoubrey concludes.

Why our kids need media literacy

Reading and writing used to be enough on World Literacy Day, but now being able to filter what we read is an essential part of our children’s development.

It’s World Literacy Day on 8 September 2019 – a day set aside by the United Nations to celebrate literacy and to reflect on the world’s remaining literacy challenges. The foundations of this are the original three ‘Rs’- reading, writing and arithmetic, but the ubiquity of smartphones, fake news and social media has created the need for an additional basic skill: media literacy.

“Connected kids are relentlessly targeted by big tech and media companies, gaming houses, video content and other content that’s way beyond their years – all created and promoted by people they’ve never met and have no reason to trust,” says Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, which supports parents, teachers and psychologists to help children feel safer and behave smarter online.

“Furthermore, this is all happening at a time when tweens and teens are in crucial stages of their emotional and intellectual development, underpinned by an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, raging hormones, and the very typical teenage need of being desperate to fit in and belong,” he says.

McCoubrey adds that the various massive media corporations have created algorithms that ensure that users are the editors of the content they receive. That’s not the positive outcome that it may seem at first: users unconsciously select the content that re-confirms their bias too, limiting and narrowing their view of the world.

And, in an era where social media has overtaken traditional mediums of news consumption, teens are getting their news from social media platforms rather than formal news organisations, with few means to discriminated fake news from real.

 “This is why media literacy education is such an essential part of tween and teenage education, giving kids the tools, habits and skills of expression that they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators, and active citizens in today’s world – all skills that certainly can’t be shared via a YouTube video!” McCoubrey continues.

Media literacy is the ability to access, analyse, evaluate, create, and act, using all forms of communication. It also promotes an awareness of media intention and influence, and teaches people how to take an active and considered approach to how they create and consume media, by providing a framework to access, analyse, and evaluate messages, whether in print, online, or in broadcast media.

While stats for South Africa are sketchy, Americans are exposed to as many as 10,000 adverts per day, and it’s realistic to say that online South Africans are not far behind. These are the ads that are telling teens how thin or ‘buff’ they should be, what they should eat and drink, what’s cool or uncool, and what they should be thinking, wearing and doing.

It’s true that parents can’t be around at every minute of the day to help children assess each message critically. Indeed, that’s completely unrealistic simply a bad idea, as they’ll never learn the skills that they need to be good digital (and IRL) citizens if they’re not equipped with the tools they need to navigate their way through the media landscape themselves.

It’s time to commemorate World Literacy Day 2019 by equipping children to be critical of what media they consume so that they can control their interpretation of what they see and hear, rather than letting media control them.

Swimming upstream for respect

Has the smartphone and social media changed the dynamic of respect between parents and teens?

Thursday, 1st August, is International Respect for Parents Day, created in 1994 to encourage the appreciation of parents all over the world.

Although the celebratory day started before hand-held technology became ubiquitous, #RespectForParentsDay is more topical than ever, as the balance of power has shifted since the iPhone launched in 2007 and iPad in 2010.

“The goalposts moved. In the last decade or so, many kids became wiser than their parents in a specific area – technology. This gives them leverage on so many things – they know how to work around boundaries, hide private content and conversations, screen time limits, and most have access, and are exposed to, anything they might wish to find,” says Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife, South Africa’s premier ‘Digital Life Skills Program’ in schools.

“Since these devices launched, there has been little guidance around digital life skills or ‘online values’. In our work with teens and tweens in schools, this increase in exposure has placed many parents on rocky ground without an updated tool kit to navigate this new world – tweenagers believe that they are better equipped to understand what’s unfolding in their generation, are empowered to argue decisions about what is potentially safe or dangerous, and expect more time and freedom in the (online) environment that they know better. It’s driving parents crazy!” he adds.

Ensuring safer, smarter kids online is important so that they can excel online later

“At the same time, parents have become more dependent on technology as well – kids are reporting that their parents aren’t savvy or in control of their own device usage – so they can challenge their parents about their own lack of self-control. It’s hard to accept that times have changed. Kids have more answers and arguments through their online exposure and tech skills than ever before. One certainty is that life doesn’t work in a straight line – working together is a success factor in human relationships.”

“Ironically, the debate between parents and their kids is the starting point to educate them, the platform to stay calm, be clear, build bridges to understand this new world, clear up misunderstandings and cement boundaries. Consistency is key. Many parents are now using a smartphone agreement these days,” he says.

Parents to stay calm, set clear boundaries and understand their new world.

Regardless of how angry a parent may feel, MySociaLife offers a few tips:

  1. Lead by example. If parents treat others around them – from staff to colleagues and other family members – tweenagers will learn by example and are more likely to mirror and reciprocate. We are essentially sponges to human behaviour.
  2. Identify situations where your teens were on the receiving end of disrespect, and have an open discussion about how that made them feel. They’re likely to have more empathy for others – including their parents – going forward.
  3. Parents are often afraid they’ll alienate their teens by refusing to accept their unreasonable behaviour. But fortunately, boundaries remain essential irrespective of which generation you come from. Remember that children who don’t learn how to treat others respectfully when they’re younger may struggle to engage constructively in social and work environments later on. A smartphone and social media agreement will help with clarifying these boundaries.

For more information, contact mary-ann@mysocialife or call 021 419 3144.