Children's Well-being in the Digital Age: Five steps to protect and educate children today
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults" - Frederick Douglass Children and digital technologies Today, in nearly all countries around the world, not many months after coming into this world, children are introduced to something they cannot resist, which will most likely accompany them for the rest of their lives: technology. Any observant adult would realize that for some children, technology, in the form of computers, iPads or smartphones, are even more appetizing than a candy bar. Children's use of digital technologies and its positive benefits have been amply discussed and advertised. Nonetheless, much less is spoken about the negative effects that technology has on children's well-being.
The negative effects of technology on children Research-wise, the adverse physical and psychological or mental health-effects technology has on children is well-documented (1). From obesity, to depression, mobbing or cyber-bullying, harassment, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, eating disorders to lack of focus at school and life, or video game and social media addictions (just to name a few!), the perils facilitated or exacerbated by inadequate use of technologies are abundant. Whereas not all these consequences can be directly linked to the devices themselves, their inadequate use and the way social media and apps are built has become a channel to facilitate, encourage or exacerbate deeper problems. Can technology's adverse effects on mental health be prevented? Recent cases brought to light, such as Molly Russell's case have served to increase more awareness in society about the dangers of technology. In this case, algorithms on Instagram and Pinterest fed content on romanticized self-harm acts by young people to Molly, a young teen, without having requested it, thus contributing to mental health problems and her eventual death. Similarly, famous cyberbullying cases such as the Ryan Halligan case or Megan Meier case have urged parents and schools to act.
The loss, mourning and regrets experienced by parents, teachers and others is unavoidable. However, public discussions and dialogues on how to prevent future episodes like this from happening give us hope that the future can look brighter and happier if we do our share to help, listen, protect and advise children.
Five steps to protect and educate children in an increasingly digital world
While especially children in school-age make use of devices for learning, entertainment and socialization, parents, educators and society in general can all contribute to help prevent the adverse effects of technology on children's mental health. Adequate prevention strategies -before problems arise- can also help to enhance children's well-being. 1. Listen to your children and observe any early behavior changes. Approaching your child with care and love, asking about their day and friends and observing their reactions is important. 2. Familiarize yourself with your children's social media use and online interactions. Have open, non-judgemental conversations about that. 3. Educate your children on the dangers associated to social media use and other platforms. 4. Encourage time offline, limit time online. Nurture children's offline lives by integrating face-to-face activities with you and others. Mastering new skills, supporting their talents and nurturing friendships and family bonds outside the Internet/online media/games can strengthen a child's self-confidence and well-being. 5. Express love, empathy and support for your children! Love goes a long way, and a child that feels loved, supported and listened-to is more likely to open up.
(1) References El Asam, A., Samara, M., & Terry, P. (2019). Problematic internet use and mental health among British children and adolescents. Addictive behaviors, 90, 428-436.
Health, T. L. C. A. (2018). Growing up in a digital world: benefits and risks. The Lancet. Child & adolescent health, 2(2), 79.
Lomas, N.; Tech Crunch (2022). Social media a factor in death of UK school girl, inquest finds. https://consent.yahoo.com/v2/collectConsent?sessionId=3_cc-session_ca440550-3c5f-48c1-aa7f-fc6749049f52
O'Keeffe, G. S., Clarke-Pearson, K., & Council on Communications and Media. (2011). The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families. Pediatrics, 127(4), 800-804.
Slonje, R., Smith, P. K., & Frisén, A. (2013). The nature of cyberbullying, and strategies for prevention. Computers in human behavior, 29(1), 26-32.
Smahel, D., Wright, M. F., & Cernikova, M. (2015). The impact of digital media on health: children’s perspectives. International journal of public health, 60(2), 131-137.
UNICEF (2021). Violence against children online. Available at https://www.unicef.org/protection/violence-against-children-online
Yoo, Y. S., Cho, O. H., & Cha, K. S. (2014). Associations between overuse of the internet and mental health in adolescents. Nursing & health sciences, 16(2), 193-200.
Young, K. S., & De Abreu, C. N. (Eds.). (2017). Internet addiction in children and adolescents: Risk factors, assessment, and treatment. Springer Publishing Company.