MySociaLife

Children’s Mental Health Week 2020

One in every ten children between the ages of five and 17 suffers from a psychiatric disorder, with these illnesses likely to persist into adulthood,  Children’s Mental Health Week from 3 to 9 February 2020 calls on parents and teachers to help children to identify the causes and manage these illnesses. However, many parents and teachers, even doctors and psychologists are feeling lost at sea by the technological divide.

Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, a South African in-school Digital Life Skills Program teaching digital life skills program for schools, says that young South Africans are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues caused by the country’s complex socio-economic environment, but there are a number of reasons why mental health can be impacted by online activity and social media usage. As if the instability and risk in the country isn’t enough to manage in traditional media, it is amplified by social feeds and instant message – the always on nature of phones and virality of social networks places this exposure in the paths of teens and pre-teens through a diversity of devices – phones, tablets, computers, consoles.

“Although smartphones are relatively recent developments, there is already research linking social media use in children to depression and there are a number of ways smart devices and social media can affect children and adults,” McCoubrey says. “This includes obsessive overuse, disconnection from real-world relationships, anxiety about what we have seen or experienced online, self-esteem and body issues from over exposure and comparison.

The most common mental illnesses found among tweens and teens include depression, generalised anxiety disorder, self-harm, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and eating disorders. These can be triggered by a variety of causes, including long-term illness, a parent with mental illness or alcoholism, being bullied or sexually harassed, being close to a death or divorce in the family, or bearing the responsibility of care for family members.

McCoubrey adds that targeting of our youth by technology companies is akin to a ‘perfect storm’ – tech companies have designed and built the various platforms, and promote them relentlessly via advertising, and this intersects with the under-developed neurobiology and physiology of our children,” he says. “The impact of social media on their brain/body connection has a magnetic affect that pulls them in deeper into digital environments that may impact negatively on their mental health.”

It’s not uncommon for teens to be online for hours. And in that time, they are consuming hundreds of images, videos, text from news or social feeds, trapped in a cyberbullying attack, talking to strangers in chat forums, or comparing themselves to other teens, often damaging their self-esteem.

While it’s natural for tweens and teens to experience some anxiety, the incidence of mental health issues among young people has increased in tandem with the adoption of smartphones since 2007 and parents and teachers should take steps to help young people navigate this new territory in these ways.

Adults can help – parents, teachers and mental health professionals:

  1. Pay attention to marked changes in their behaviour – mood swings, sleep, attention and aggression.
  2. Ask questions about what is happening in their life online and talk to your children about what they’re feeling. While many do not open up, their response may indicate something is happening that is troubling the child.
  3. Share your view of what is acceptable online, and create firm boundaries of what you will tolerate with the consequence of limiting access to wifi, data or even the device. Make an agreement and put it up in your home where it can be seen.
  4. Encourage self-care by suggesting a break from the social platforms and lead the way by how much you are using your phone in the home and do things together in real life, to reconnect and to get active.
  5. Explain that images online don’t tell the real story or share the true background of what’s happening in a person’s life.
  6. If your child’s interactions with online platforms impacts their health and wellbeing negatively on an ongoing basis, get help from a counsellor or psychologist, to prevent it escalating. SADAG are an excellent guide.
Digital life skills training is vital for all children.

“It’s vital to teach young people how to be good digital citizens, equipping them with the skills they need to make smart decisions about their online lives,” McCoubrey says. “Once they have those foundations, they will be able to make good decisions for the benefit of their mental health on their own, and their ability to do so will stand them in good stead in the employment world of the future.”

Anti-Bullying Week – South Africa ranks high in global survey on cyberbullying

South Africa showed the highest prevalence of cyberbullying in a recent report by Ipsos Global, based on research in 28 countries. The report showed that more than 80% of South Africans said they were aware of cyberbullying and almost three-quarters of South Africans believe that the anti-bullying measures that are in place are insufficient. A Vodafone survey from 2018 ranked South Africa fourth for teen cyberbullying out of 13 countries, and Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, a South African in-school Digital Life Skills Program teaching digital life skills program for schools, says that it’s likely even more prevalent, based on student feedback.

Cyberbullying is real, it’s here, and it’s harming South African children and teenagers daily, with its effects often being mistaken for ‘kids just being kids’ by parents who are yet to understand how rife and damaging cyberbullying can be. Anti-Bullying Week 2019, from 11-15 November, is a good time for schools to pay attention to the extent of cyberbullying, and for parents to get a handle on what they can do to avoid and deal with it.

“The challenge with cyberbullying is that parents can’t permanently monitor their child’s devices,” explains McCoubrey, whose programme teaches thousands of students, parents, teachers and psychologists to help children feel safer and behave smarter online.

“Parents and teachers need specifics – not just the broad term of ‘cyberbullying’ – as this is a broad and elusive form of ‘warfare’ on these devices – and parents will definitely find it difficult to track or understand what’s actually going on.

He shares the five faces of cyberbullying:

  1. Children can use negative, harmful, false images or text, chat, apps or social media posts to embarrass or threaten someone.
  2. The sharing of personal or private information that may cause the victim to feel embarrassed or humiliated. This can surprisingly hail from a friend (a practical joke) or a former friend, turned enemy. In that event, the controlling of a person’s account, posting photographs, starting rumours, or changing profile photos can also occur.
  3. Faking profiles, known as ‘catfishing’, when bullies create new accounts and borrow profile photos and names and pretend to be a person to create a false relationship – sometimes sharing the personal and confidential declarations made in confidence.
  4. Sexting or sextortion is the sharing of nude photographs either within group chats, or on social media sites, or websites (although less likely due to the possibility of tracking the source of the publisher). Sextortion is focused more on the threat and bribery associated with publishing photographs, rather than the act itself.
  5. Video shaming is the sharing of videos of someone being embarrassed, threatened or hurt, and then publishing these to allow the content to go wider, or even viral, compounding the psychological harm.

Students and parents have a few options:

  1. Record: Most importantly, kids need to be reminded to record the cyberbullying event by using the device to take a screenshot and even send the screenshot to a safe place (email, storage) so you can take it off your device. This can be used to prove the problem exists as bullies are cunning and cover their tracks.
  2. Don’t take the bait: As difficult as it may seem, reacting is what the bully wants, and kids need to avoid the situation and remove themselves from groups or feeds which aren’t supporting their mental health. It may be hard but it’s necessary.
  3. Seek support: Parents and schools need to create safe spaces to discuss the issues and not ‘freak out’ – students often say that reactive parents and teachers who tackle the issue too abruptly can snowball or magnify the problem. Adults need to handle situations calmly with patience and maturity.
  4. Engage: From a mental health perspective, students need support, but it’s essential to select a trusted expert. This may be a counsellor or senior figure in the school to assist with the situation. Alternatively, you can seek out a social media lawyer or the police, dependent on the extent of the harm. Suggestions include SafetyNet for bullying, or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group for mental health concerns.

In conducting MySociaLife’s interactive social media and safety program, which includes a module about cyberbullying, McCoubrey has been surprised by students coming forward and admitting they had no idea of the extent of cyberbullying, the different sensitivities of human beings, and how different images, social media posts, chat forums and messages can hurt people, and impact them long-term. McCoubrey explained that of the ten modules they teach; cyberbullying is the #1 problem followed by mental health and self-esteem, then privacy and security and sexuality online.

But cyberbullying is an issue which starts early and continues throughout. It’s the nature of social media – we feel we have a voice to say good and bad things! “These are kids, and because they look savvy online, it doesn’t mean they have the maturity to handle the device.

“Four out of 10 kids don’t want to share their concerns. We need to find a way to engage, a safe platform to discuss these concerns, without withdrawing them from their community, unless of course, that’s a necessity to keep them safe.

According to Commonsense Media, there are four parties involved in a cyberbullying situation: the cyberbully that’s using digital tools to deliberately upset or harass their target – the victim of cyberbullying. The bystanders are aware that something cruel is happening, but who stay on the side-lines out of indifference or fear of becoming targets themselves. The upstanders are the kids who actively try to stop the cyberbullying cycle, whether it’s by sticking up for the victim, standing up to the bully, or notifying the appropriate authorities about what’s happening.

Cyberbullying is real and the impact it has on teens and tweens can be hugely damaging if not handled correctly.

“Parents and teachers can use Anti-Bullying Week to make children aware that it’s everyone’s responsibility to make the online and real-life worlds a safe place,” says McCoubrey. “Anyone can be an upstander by reporting a bully, flagging a cruel comment, or even just choosing not to forward or share cyberbullying content. Doing so will stop a cyberbullying episode from escalating, and will reduce or even remove the bully’s power.

“It’s also important to have open paths of communication with everyone and to continue talking about how to prevent cyberbullying from happening. That is why every school should have a digital life skills program in place,” he says.

The smartphone agreement. One-size-does-not-fit-all.

Download our smartphone agreement and tips here.

There’s something we so often miss when we decide to tackle the online issue with our kids. We listen to the media or industry specialists, and we apply their broad brush stroke rules to our own child. And yet every child is so phenomenally different. And so are every family’s values.

Step 1: Observe your kids and discuss with your partners (if possible) how concerned you actually are, how attached your son or daughter is to their device, what type of media they are consuming. Author Adam Alter explains that we can largely deduce if there is indeed a problem when we see a negative change in behaviour – for example, relationships, personality or normal ‘output’ (whatever that may be for them – across school work, energy, mood).

Step 2: We may have to open up to the notion that our kids can also fake it – fearful of being forced to drop habits, behaviours, or relationships, which they wish to hold on to. In addition, one of a teen’s or tween’s greatest fears is having their phone taken away which is one reason why an approximate 40% of teenagers (a Vodafone survey in 13 countries) don’t tell parents or guardians about the problems they experience online, a statistic we have seen in our education program in schools.

Step 3: Sit down and talk with your teen or tween and establish the house rules online – when and how much time, which apps are acceptable and which behaviours cannot be tolerated. But if you have a budding entrepreneur, a genius coder, or promising drone pilot, and he/she wishes to pursue a career in technology, does that allow for any flexibility? You’ll have to factor in how conservative or liberal you are in your household – one house is more lenient than another, after all. Here is the agreement.

Step 4: It’s ok for us to re-establish the rules as long as we do it fairly and clearly, and hold ourselves to the same principles. Kids frequently comment about how their parents have poor self-awareness skills around their own obsessive phone use.

Step 6: Think very carefully on these, don’t rush it because once you’ve created this together, you’ll need to uphold it … until its time for a review.

Step 7: Maybe go slowly at first, try not to be extreme – trust is the key – and every now and then it’s ok to relax a little every now and then, explaining that they’ve earned it as part of the reward.

Download our smartphone agreement and tips here.

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 Commonsense.org, 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.