MySociaLife

Mental Health

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.