MySociaLife

Mental Health

Expert on SA’s Anti-Bullying Week: “Why are South Africans cyberbullying?”

South Africa has a problem that is getting harder to fix

“How would you know if your child was being cyberbullied?” That is the chilling question that we posed during this week’s Anti-Bullying Week in South Africa. Originated by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, this year’s theme is ‘One Kind Word.’

“The reality is that a surprising number of teens, and even pre-teens, won’t share that with you, as much as 40% have admitted they don’t want to open up, because they are worried parents may get angry, or be disappointed, or cause them embarrassment. Yet, students share this with us in schools and feedback in our online safety program. So we need to deeply rethink our approach.” 

Many adults hear the term ‘bullying’ or ‘cyberbullying’ and can easily assume this is the behaviour of immature school cliques. Still, in reality, bullying is driven by power dynamics, fear, insecurity, anxiety or personal exposure to aggressive and dominant behaviour that results in harassment and the invisible erosion of self-esteem. The impact causes the victim harm and can also extend into repeated behaviours by the perpetrator later in life, directed towards a colleague, employee, spouse, or partner.

Several studies in recent years have shown South Africa has rated in the top five in the world for cyberbullying – identified as when a child causes physical or emotional harm. Online, the behaviour is peaking at the age of 13, 14 and 15 years of age. Our one-hour lesson specifically covers all forms of online abuse, such as catfishing, outing, flaming, trolling, shaming, exclusion, image-based violence, and that’s just a few of them. We dig into the topic of empathy and show the consequences which can go as far as some students committing suicide. Cyberbullying is an invisible tormentor. It hides behind screens, evading parents and teachers. Even friends can miss the signs. Low self-esteem can make kids assume they deserve to be bullied or inhibit their ability to recognise it. Tweens and teens fear retaliation and worry that speaking up will only make things worse.

The challenge is not just technological but environmental. We want to blame devices for cyberbullying, but it’s more of a tool for bullying and not a reason for it. We have to understand the anxiety and anger that sits within our society, which has been aggravated by socio-economic challenges, the isolation during the pandemic and a surge of online users that have yet to be equipped by educators. That’s why bullying in South Africa is a crisis and not just a problem. Due to the leadership vacuum in this country, financial pressure in homes, and disconnected life skills and digital education, kids are acting out online in the same way they used to act out physically. South Africa is one of the more prominent cyberbullying nations in some studies. Education departments need to realise the powerful influence of social media and games and use them intelligently, re-directing the use of devices and platforms towards positive outcomes instead of negative ones. It is possible, but we are way behind right now. There’s a generational and technological divide.

According to Legalwise, South Africa’s CyberCrimes Act “criminalises a wide variety of cybercrimes. However, examples of crimes specifically associated with cyberbullying include electronic messages or social media posts towards a person that incite or threaten that person with violence or damage to their property; and the disclosure of intimate images of an identifiable person without their consent or link an identifiable person to such an image in the description of a data message. Intimate images refer to nude images, images of a person’s private parts (even if that person is wearing clothes), or edited images where a person is identifiable. With regards to children, these cybercrimes will also form part of the Child Justice Act 75 of 2008, which regulates how children will be dealt with when they are accused of committing crimes and what consequences they will face. Imprisonment may be imposed for children between the ages of 10 and 18, but only as a last resort and for the shortest period possible.”

Our best shot lies in education. Suppose we can assume that robust values-driven leadership may not change any time soon. In that case, we only have the opportunity to show the youth the benefits of digital citizenship, empathy, communication in conflict, how to manage cyberbullying, and how to self-regulate. These skills are something every child can call on when an adult may not know what’s happening. It’s their armour. There has to be an incentive for them. Every small positive decision – every kind word – can lead to a better path in life, but someone needs to light the way. Ironically, teaching them through social media and popular culture and showing them their choices and the consequences really do work. They can relate to it. Our program has proven to have a real impact on students in acting as that beacon that shows them the fork in the road to make better choices.

World Mental Health Day: How can we make “mental health care a reality for teens and tweens?”

“If Instagram is such a positive force, have we seen a golden age of teenage mental health in the last 10 years? No, we have seen escalating rates of suicide and depression amongst teenagers,” she continued. “There’s a broad swath of research that supports the idea that the usage of social media amplifies the risk of these mental health harms.” These were the words of Frances Haugen, Facebook’s whistleblower testifying during a Senate Committee this week, just a few days before World Mental Health Day.

Mental health care for all: let’s make it a reality, is a theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day celebrated on 10th October, supported by the World Health Organisation. After 20 months and three waves of a pandemic, lockdowns and school and business interruptions, the task is as daunting this year as perhaps any before it.

 

“There’s a broad swath of research that supports the idea that the usage of social media amplifies the risk of these mental health harms.” –Frances Haugen, Facebook

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) notes that nine percent of all teenage deaths 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, social isolation, bullying, loss, abuse, and conflict. There are additional contributors that this generation is contending with – the increased exposure to the news at an earlier age and the tendency to ‘doomscroll’ on social media or compare their life to others.

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, is associated with increased psychological distress. With the effects almost twice as severe among girls.

We are seeing the effects of social media first-hand when we engage with teens and tweens about their online life during our 8-lesson in-school program.

“Students tell us about the pressure they feel around life online, and many agree that it can bend their character or values, leading to inappropriate or out of character behaviour,” says Dean McCoubrey, our founder – we also train parents, teachers and psychologists to help children feel safer and behave smarter online. 

 

The increased exposure to the news at an earlier age and the tendency to ‘doomscroll’ on social media or compare their life to others.

“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. “Mental health is affected when we fail to have enough ‘in person’ contact, secondly a lack of exercise and thirdly repetitive thought patterns that are negative media exposure, known as doomscrolling. The gradual erosion of self-esteem that teens end up with, after comparing themselves to their peers highlight reels and the mental fatigue from cyberbullying or online intimidation also play a role.”

Education will have to play a bigger role in making mental health care a reality for teens and tweens. The detrimental effects of social media can be reduced by also adding in the training of parents, teachers and school counsellors. We created four programs, and not just a student program, because all the adults in the chain of care have to contribute. Not enough people understand the complexity of how humans react and respond to social media, and what the consequences are, especially because teens can keep things quite hushed.

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.

It doesn’t help that teens and pre-teens explore the internet without the one-on-one guidance of parents or teachers, and even if filters are applied, they stumble onto content that they’re not yet able to process. 

Our program is pro-technology, which is changing the world in so many creative, entertaining, and philanthropic ways, but the fact remains that children need more digital education.

 

It doesn’t help that teens and pre-teens explore the internet without the one-on-one guidance of parents or teachers

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, and ask why we didn’t prepare our children more carefully and give them the tools to think critically and self-regulate.

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. 

TODAY, World Youth Skills Day: Unemployment driving unrest in South Africa

Is there a way we can reverse youth unemployment in this country? 

In the midst of South Africa’s deep unrest, 15th July is World Youth Skills Day. Tragically, the country’s youth unemployment rate reached a new record of 32.6%, the highest since the quarterly labour force survey began in 2008, totalling 7.242 million people out of work.
Employment lies at the centre of many socio-economic ills, given its capacity to fill time, provide purpose, generate income and drive greater equality. But employment can only be driven by skills training.  

Africa is burdened with an additional challenge: many struggle with literacy, due to the poor delivery of basic education. So, where might hope and inspiration be found in the next decade? In our pockets.

Smart device costs continue to come down, and new manufacturers are bringing in devices at lower costs, as well as data prices slowly dropping, meaning increasing access as we move through this decade, and more opportunity to upskill via online learning on a phone, with a growing resource of training platforms which offers free training programs like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and Khan Academy.
But, explains Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife, South Africa’s leading digital education and media literacy program, “There are many promises various governments have made about their promise of leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), but how many understand the foundational digital skills required? You can’t just jump into robotics or coding, you need to understand what it is to be a digital citizen to embrace the free resources of the internet. Without it, you are driving a vehicle without a licence, or a map. How do you explore and grow safely?”

McCoubrey explains that the foundation is required in the same way previous generations were taught at length to hold a pencil and use those words they create more wisely. By contrast, increasingly, the internet is seeing spikes of misinformation and cyberbullying.

“With the basics in place of media literacy – understanding media, its power and influences, and fake news – as well as digital literacy such as privacy, cybersecurity and handling technology carefully, we can shift gear into exploration and expansion. We can find avenues of income. MySociaLife shows teens where they can learn photography for free, for example, and then show them where to sell their photos or videos,” adds McCoubrey.

Teens and pre-teens use the apps and devices so intuitively, and it’s a huge advantage. Some children are poor in school but brilliant online, which means there could be an alternative for young South Africans that could transcend the lack of quality basic education.

“We stand at a doorway to vault over other African countries, but we need guidance to know which keys will open it and prepare Generation Z for a 4IR future. We need to focus on basic digital education as well before it’s too late and we miss a glaring opportunity.”

Looking at TikTok and other social media and gaming platforms, popular culture has youth fascinated and motivated, with approximately 60% of its 1bn users globally found in the GenZ age range. We already sing, dance, shoot videos and photos, why not build on this, and start to use these skills? What if we taught them how to do it safely, intelligently and with purpose. Minecraft For Education, for example, is a way to game and code at the same time, learning a new “language”.

MySociaLife approaches the challenge by not only teaching kids foundational digital skills but also their teachers and parents on how to direct youth to opportunities and realise potential, while at the same time ensuring online safety too – “two sides of the same coin.” A South African EdTech training platform, it allows schools to simply log in and learn using eight hours of video training for learners aged 8 to 18 including subjects such as online safety, privacy, cybersecurity, digital footprint, bullying and intimidation, fake news, and ways to build skills and generate income online.

The World Economic Forum listed its top 10 skills for “The Future of Work in 2025” and these included technology monitoring, use and control, and also technology design and programming, critical thinking, social influence, reasoning and stress tolerance. “We teach many of these skills to kids in schools and they respond with such energy and enthusiasm. It’s something that ignites them.”“On World Youth Skills Day, this is a call to the government to understand both the challenges and the opportunities of media and digital literacy – and to accept how much they need to quickly grasp with regard to evolving popular culture, pre-teen and teen usage of devices simply because of the generational divide and technology divide. It could deliver a huge shift in employment, direction and momentum over time. We are completely missing this right now,” says McCoubrey.


“Even kids that are literate and have unlimited access are not fully utilising their devices and media platforms to their full potential. The outcome of digital citizenship is a more aware and responsible society because it reduces the negativity and polarity online, increases people’s ability to choose their next action, embracing the net for what it can offer – to share, to inform, to educate, to deliver income, to support, and much more. It’s apparent we would greatly benefit from this right now,” he concludes.

About MySociaLife

  • Schools can purchase the course and “login and learn” – using lesson plans, tips and tools and an assessment, with over 8 hours of training
  • Parents can access a 90-minute training to navigate their child’s online landscape
  • Teachers can access a 75-minute training to guide their students

Delivering an 8-module ‘Digital Citizenship Curriculum’, via webinar or Learning Management System, to Grade 4 to 11 learners in South African Schools, MySociaLife is the leading Digital Life Skills Program in the country. The Program has unmatched efficacy (data) with regards to student impact and behavioural change from the extensive modules which include: critical thinking, cyberbullying and empathy, sexuality online, a digital values system, privacy and security, mental health and resilience, and screen time addiction. End goal? Safer, smarter kids online – who will be able to explore and excel way beyond their peers as we slipstream into the highly competitive and demanding Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

The effect of social media on the subconscious mind

We’re seen as social media and online safety experts, and we also help kids to move into exploration and excellence online. And in order to do that, we need to get them to understand what the media does to them, what impact it has on them, and what this visual world imprints into their consciousness.

This is quite profound because when you think about the life that we have on smart devices and particularly social media, we are spending so much of our day on YouTube and Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and we are scrolling all the time… we are looking at and consuming media and content through our eyes. Once it gets processed in our brain, it then gets stored in our own operating system – in our own iOS. And of course, if there is something that is either really exciting or really, really disturbing, then that, of course, can get more deeply entrenched in that iOS. It can change the perspective of the way in which we see the world.

For example, If you keep scrolling through content that has some influence about the way in which people look – that could be body shape, or it could be how wealthy they are or what clothes they have, or what privilege they have. And when you repeatedly look at that content, it shapes your view of both yourself and that type of stereotyped image or group. And yet, we all know that what you see online is not necessarily true – however, it still has a psychological effect on us.

It all started by a visual representation, which we consumed, processed and stored. And of course, if the memory isn’t a strong one, then it just gets shelved, or archived and slowly fades away. But for kids, they are a little bit more vulnerable than that. They’re in a very interesting stage of their neuro-biological development. We need to understand their increasing life online. They’re reporting that they are using YouTube and Netflix and social media channels as their news services, as the inspiration, and if that content and stimulus doesn’t have the right influence, then it’s going to change the lens through which they look at life and other people.

Now, what can we do about that? Well, we need to talk to them about it.

Are they going to get offline because of this information – in fact, is that even the goal? That’s up to the principal and the teachers during school time or break time, and the parents while at home. But one guarantee is that they will be using devices for the rest of their lives and now is the time to entrench foundational critical thinking with regards to all types of content, influence, fraud, misinformation. This isn’t fear-mongering against social media, these are just the absolute basics which have been missed. And it starts with understanding what we’re doing as human beings when we’re consuming all of this visual content.

They do need to be able to stop, to turn a device over, and to take a break, to ask questions, to be media literate, to find out whether “is this fake news? I wonder…, I mean, maybe I’ll ask some friends… or maybe I’ll ask a parent, or I’ll ask an adult, is this true?” And if the content in which they’re seeing is not making them feel good… to stop. Just something as simple as that – just stop and ask a question. “Actually, I’m not sure if this is making me feel so good”.

These are things that happen invisibly. They happen automatically, to both adults and children. It’s simply because we don’t understand that we are consuming visual stimulus, processing it, and in some cases, storing it. And if we do that repeatedly, then that starts to change the way we view things around us, and the way we see the world. And that is something which is incredibly important and worth playing for.

Expert: Our kids are “doomscrolling”, and feeling the effects online

A global pandemic, lockdown, fluctuating COVID-19 cases, political corruption, and global instability that includes espionage by cell phone manufacturers and social media companies. The news is largely bad news.

“The trend of doomscrolling has never been higher than in 2020. The intersection of a health and financial crisis, the introspection of a lockdown, and increased screen time means that we have more access to local and international doom and gloom than ever before in history,” explains South Africa’s digital and social media expert, Dean McCoubrey from MySociaLife.

Can his claim be substantiated? If the pandemic had occurred a decade ago in 2010, the news surrounding the crisis would have been limited to just 2bn internet users. According to Statista, in 2020, there are now over 4.5bn users online with almost 4bn using social media and likely accessing news via the portable smart device in their bag or back pocket.

“When things go bad we can find out about it immediately due to social media feeds. They are spontaneous. Traditional news was never this quick. Moreover, the news that’s spreads online is not always factual,” he adds.

Despite some of the frightening and concerning things that are happening in the world, there are also many developments and reasons for positivity, especially being in the most advanced technology point in history. “Consider the development of the vaccine in which there are more than a few trials in advancing phases. If we saw a daily news report that opened on the latest development of the vaccine, would we see things slightly differently – with a little more hope?” he explains.

Negative news fuels fear and divisiveness as is now seen in politically unstable, or even apparently stable, countries like the United States.

“Consuming depressing or dramatic content affirms our belief that things are unsafe or dangerous. In one sense it makes us feel safe to confirm that the world is unsafe.”

McCoubrey questions if we didn’t consume as much negative media which include fake news, and are purposely driven to send more content of the same theme via its divisive algorithms, would we see people feeling less stress fear and anxiety?

“Would COVID-19 have been more manageable? (included space)Not less severe, but more manageable. Let me be clear that the news cycle has undoubtedly saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, but there is definitely the fallout of an infodemic. In schools, the number one lesson that our students asked for in our digital life orientation program last month – out of the eight modules which we offer – was mental health, and the second most requested lesson was tools to help focus. With teens having similar access to adults via social media their brains are not necessarily equipped to process or manage this flood of information, even if they appear technologically confident and competent.”

“Due to app penetration, hundreds of millions of teens are now their own media publishers on apps like TikTok, Instagram and Reels. Fake news posing as memes can just perpetuate, as many teens lack the critical thinking to ask enough questions about what is true or false, safe or dangerous. It’s all about understanding media and it’s influence – known as media literacy.”

Doomscrolling is the fuel that feeds the new ‘attention economy’. It keeps us coming back for more, either the need to feel safe or the need to be thrilled and be part of the conversation. That has always been the lure of news. But right now there’s more bad news, more introspection, and more access all rolled into one.

“Parents need to be conscious of what they are consuming, how their news consumption rubs off on their anxiety and how that impacts their kids. Teens openly share that it’s too much, and the adults need to play a larger role in the management of doom,” he continues.

Mccoubrey cites three important biases to consider when consuming the news:

  1. Negativity bias:This is where we focus on negative information, events or emotions more than their positive counterparts. This originally would have been used to keep us alert and therefore safe. But the same perils do not exist that used to hundreds of years ago. We are wired for caution more than may be required.
  1. Confirmation bias:If we have been exposed to a piece of information, often we can seekq to confirm that ‘fact’ by seeking supporting information, stories or data, despite conflicting stories which may not prove it to be conclusive.
  1. Availability bias: If we have been exposed to certain information or events, these are more ‘front and centre’ in our minds for a period of time, and we can overestimate their importance. They may have relevance, in some instances, but they could also be a snapshot of a moment in the news – and are not representative of the bigger picture in a country or city, for example.

“Yes, things are tough right now and there is no arguing they can be scary. But if we keep that flow of negative news coming in we will focus on that, and it’s hard to start seeing the positive aspects in every day. Ironically, that’s one way out. Take a break from the media and social media. You’ll be amazed by what happens, and it’s what the MySociaLife Program teaches teens and pre-teens in South African schools: how to navigate this complicated online landscape to be become safer, smarter and more savvy. This may be just as important as any other topic in school these days, given where we are headed in this decade,” McCoubrey concludes.

A suicide goes viral on social media: Suicide Prevention Day

Suicide goes viral on social media

Thursday, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) around the world, organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), and co-sponsor World Health Organisation (WHO).  

This year, however, we find ourselves within a different context, trying to emerge from various levels of lockdown and re-establish society and community in stabilising healthy daily activities. In schools, students have either been unable to enjoy the regular routine of attending class or, those with access to devices and data, have found themselves experiencing an increase of several hours a day of online learning. With increased screen times comes increased exposure and influence. A 33-year-old American man committed suicide on social media, and while platforms tried to contain the virality in recent days by blocking access to the video, platform users had repurposed the video in other formats and published into multiple channels, including teen app sensations, TikTok and Instagram. Schools in South Africa have issued warnings of the video to parents over the last few days.


A simple Google search shows the frequency of social media virality around suicide including hashtags that allow users to share their darkest fears and emotional turmoil publicly, with other users commenting. The obsessive usage of these platforms means that teens and pre-teens can be exposed to graphic, violent, or explicit sexual imagery, which disturbs some individuals and causes a response that may vary from anxiety to anger, to sadness, to shame. The most important revelation, according to Dean McCoubrey, the Founder of MySociaLife, the South African online safety and social media program operating in schools, is that “as many as a third of students will not discuss what they have seen or what troubles them online with their parents for fear of punishment or the removal of their device, which gives them access to entertainment, socialising, and games. This is echoed by a 2017 Vodafone survey in 13 countries, meaning that this is not exclusive to South Africa.” 


Suicide shouldn’t be a secret – people understandably think about it, especially if it is in the news or social media, without necessarily having the intent to act upon it. Often there is curiosity which opens up an opportunity to discuss or share helplines if students aren’t ready to talk to their parents for any reason. Suicide is often the result of enduring a longstanding illness, such as depression, and that if provided with the opportunity to get help, many people are able to recover from depression, and no longer have suicidal thoughts or desires. 


MySociaLife teaches thousands of students a year about online safety and social media and assumes “a rare vantage point because we teach eight lessons around digital life skills, and this creates a platform for many students to tell us about the reality of their life online”. This interaction allows the training program to track the latest apps, hoaxes, trends, language, and seeks to bridge the generational and technological divide that has arisen from a generation which received devices or social media access in the same decade as their parents. “This divide has made it difficult for adults. How can they grasp digital identity, privacy, latest apps, mental health, digital footprint, bullying, unless they work inside these moving currents on a daily basis? Parents, teachers, counsellors, and mental health professionals are struggling to understand the landscape and therefore the context of what is happening in teenager’s lives, or what to look out for. To make matters worse, these exposures can be kept largely hidden,” he adds. 


McCoubrey advises parents not to be fooled by the apparent confidence or ‘tech-savvy’ of a teen or pre-teen, given their emotional maturity, and offers six tips:

  1. Parents need to stay abreast of the trends and hoaxes online and either self educate on Google, or ask their school for expert training from educators like MySociaLife
  2. While many teens don’t enjoy probing questions, check-in on what’s interesting online – the highs and lows, or what’s being talked about – and monitor their reactions. But be conscious of your own anxiety rising and how you appear in this conversation.
  3. Provide the safety that their online concerns can be talked about, without taking the device away as punishment if they reveal something that is shocking to you. This may not be their fault that they witnessed something online
  4. Look for changes in their behaviour around sleep, mood, anxiety, their friend group, or school work
  5. Seek professional help as soon as possible, via your health care provider or professional suicide helplines, listed below
  6. Request schools to educate their staff around the latest viral dangers – given the time spent at school – to share the support function and education of students

“MySociaLife now teaches the child psychiatry units in hospitals, and speaks at GP conferences, because this is such a complicated world to understand that even medical practitioners need advice and insight to grasp the nuances within this technological landscape.” “In this instance, curiosity can get the better of kids. And all it takes is to scroll past these graphic visuals and watch something. And then it’s very difficult to get this out of the mind, which can lead to secrecy, shame, embarrassment, and fear. Our kids need non-judgmental support. We do need to accept that most parents have given these devices and data or WiFi connection and schools are using these for learning. Adults had not fully grasped the window into a vast world (of all ages) that it would provide, resulting in positive and negative outcomes.”  At MySociaLife, we have a simple motto, says McCoubrey, “Safer kids can be smarter, and then excel online. But they will need facilitators that are ‘on the pulse’, objective and highly experienced.”

The effects of social isolation during Lockdown on kids

Humans are social creatures. We take our cues from each other, and the environment around us. As we receive this information or stimulus, we process it and its contents are vital during childhood development. So what are the effects of social isolation during Lockdown on kids? What happens when (physical) social contact is dramatically reduced, as is the case during the COVID-19 pandemic?

(Some) adults will have developed a framework to manage and can source the tools to support themselves (exercise perhaps, or escapism, or communicating with others.) Children are not so fortunate. They depend on the connection, guidance, and support of those around them, which is why children that receive less support can suffer from more social, emotional, or educational challenges if they live in isolation. Loneliness has links to stress and poor mental health. Why? If the body’s stress response feels consistently under threat, it can be mentally and physically tiring, and perpetuate habitual loops – anxiety, being one example.

Lockdown has moved more of our ‘connection’ online. While that’s a ‘plus’ in many respects, there is something inside human physical contact that many of us overlook. There are dimensions of connection that the supercomputer of the brain reads – facial muscles, postures, gestures, and tonality to hear the words being spoken, or feel the story being shared, even if that’s conveyed with a look.

Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife which educates parents, students, and teachers about eight different aspects (lessons) of the complex aspects of lifeonline explains, “MySociaLife has consistently seen that time is a key factor in supporting children. Both p arents and students share this with us. Many adults (custodians) may need to slow down a little to hear them, to truly listen and pick up the cues, to ensure they feel supported and therefore reduce that stress. At the same time, that creates the space to educate them about your values or resilience, for example. They see you, hear you, and mirror you, based upon that important stream of content, as opposed to seeking it from friends or social media. Time is powerful.”

Friends, aunts, and uncles, or grandparents offer layers of support and influence, and these (hopefully positive) influences and networks help our kids grow, acting as the seeds which allow them to flourish. Make the connections as best you can with the time you have. It will pay dividends.

More wellbeing tips here on Parent24.

How do SA kids see #Coronavirus in a TikTok and Instagram-based world?

And how can parents guide and support them? SA’s Digital Life Skills experts offer 7 key tips for parents.

As Covid-19 has exploded from a distant reality in South Africa to a global pandemic, with increasing local cases of the virus, we can count ourselves lucky to have almost instant access to information, education and updates on the status of the disease. However, the sheer volume of information – fact-based or hysteria-driven – can be overwhelming, even for adults. What does this information and the adults’ concern look like to our kids, and how are they consuming information on apps like TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat?

Right now adults and kids need to think Critically.

SA’s leading digital life skills expert, Dean McCoubrey, whose company MySociaLife teaches an 8-module social media program in SA schools, explains that the skill of critical thinking – the ability to question what may be true or false, safe or dangerous, right or wrong – is a key life skill in an explosive world of self-publishing, fake news, and cyberbullying. Consider how much time some teens (and even pre-teens spend online), what is interpreted and then discussed at school, irrespective of whether it may be fake news. Early cases of the virus have seen online hate and memes on some apps towards those with the virus.

Children and teens need to be guided about how to choose what content they consume about the disease, in addition to ongoing engagement with the adults they trust. Schools and parents often overlook the source of their children’s news. “We’ve got more access to information about Covid-19 thanks to the internet and social media than we’ve had for any other global epidemics such as SARSMERS and the various Ebola outbreaks, which is helping to manage and treat it,” MCoubrey says.

“The challenge with social media is that it can magnify our herd mentality. And anyone and everyone can publish information which may not be true or negative in a bid to get traction. In the middle of this are our children, who have yet to develop the ability to discern fake news from important facts, and can become overwhelmed or anxious if they are exposed to the wrong information.”

There are a number of steps that parents can take to reassure children, discuss the implications of the disease, and equip them to self-manage their access to information. These include:

  1. Equip yourself with information from trusted resources, like UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, the US Centre for Disease Control, and the South African Department of Health. Explain that many other sources are less reliable, and check the date of articles and authors – are they credible, or do the headline and image look like fear-mongering ‘clickbait’?
  2. Keep calm where possible, because children pick up on their parents’ emotions and are more likely to panic if their parents are doing so.
  3. Ask your children what they’ve heard about Covid-19, and answer as many of their questions in age-appropriate ways as you can. If you don’t know the answer to a question, use the opportunity to research it on trusted resources together.
  4. Co-create a plan of action – it helps them feel like they’re in control. Teach them the steps that they can take to protect themselves and others, including washing hands frequently with soap or an alcohol-based hand-rub, covering their mouth when sneezing or coughing, or doing so into the elbow, avoiding sick people, and alerting adults if they feel sick so that medical attention can be sought.
  5. Share the facts to help them gain an understanding of the role that they play in society. For example, research shows that very few children get really sick or die from the virus, which may make children feel invincible. However, remind them that they can carry the virus and share it people who are vulnerable, like their grandparents.
  6. Talk about the social implications of the disease, and remind children that the disease doesn’t care what the people it infects look like – and that there’s no basis for stigmatizing any population group because of the disease. Remind them that everybody looking out for one another and working together is how diseases like Covid-19 are overcome.
  7. Keep the conversation going – Covid-19 is here for a while, so consistency is essential. Challenges provide opportunities to educate so do some online research on resources that you’ve identified as trustworthy, and discuss developments regularly and openly.

“Because we teach eight hours of life online to thousands of kids every year, we are closer to understanding how teens and tweens consume content online, interpret what they see and read, and how it impacts them (both positively and negatively).”

MySociaLife’s ‘Digital Life Skills Program’ equips children with the skills they need to be responsible digital citizens, able to discern fake news from real, explains the effect of cyberbullying, shows how to protect privacy and reputation online, and how our mind and body reacts to what we see which can cause mental health issues,” says McCoubrey.

“As devices become increasingly ubiquitous, the issue is becoming less about policing children’s screen time or access to digital content, because they’ll find a way to get online – it’s more about equipping them to think critically about the information they read so that they can participate actively in their media consumption, rather than accepting everything that they read as the truth,” he adds. “Once they have that distance to question what happens online, we can teach them about other key topics like respect, empathy, resilience and responsible publishing. In one sense they need a digital values system to call on, but you can’t find that in a curriculum here in our country. That’s why we developed our own working with a global entity, resulting in eight 60-minute sessions to unpack it carefully. Schools need help. And so do many parents – it’s a complex world out there.”

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.”

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.