How technology can affect children’s mental health, and how to limit its effects
Tips & tricks by Chimezirim Ozonyiri
In an increasingly digitised world, limiting any negative impact of technology on the mental health of children feels like a diminishing possibility. Chimezirim Ozonyiri highlights the potential psychological impact of technology on children, and what we can do to limit it.
From computers and smartphones, to tablets and gaming devices, how we live and interact with the world is now heavily reliant on technology. Our increasingly digitised world, and in particular our access to the Internet, has brought about many benefits, namely our ability to perform tasks and keep in touch with friends and family. Parents are also aware of how technology can help their children, providing them with technological solutions that they believe can help with the development of hand-eye coordination, reading, language, science, and general enjoyment.
Still, research shows that technology has also affected children's mental health, particularly in so-called ‘digitods’ – children born after 2008 – and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic where children were more exposed to the Internet and digital devices than ever before.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the ways in which technology can have a detrimental effect on children’s mental health, and ways in which its psychological impact can be limited.
How can technology affect children’s mental health?
Addiction to technology is defined as excessive or compulsive use that interferes with daily life. And by simply watching how a child spends their time, we are presented with a perfect example of this: a lot of time spent looking at their phones or interacting with gadgets, while not having time for anything else, such as schoolwork, chores, or other hobbies. In fact, according to a study by Statista, children in the UK spend numerous hours per week using technology: over 13 hours watching TV, approximately 11 hours playing video games, 14.4 hours using a mobile device, and 15.3 hours using the internet. Children who are in their early adolescent years typically spend more than 20 hours each week online.
A study looking at the psychosocial aspects of internet addiction discovered that being addicted to the internet increases the risk of depression and anxiety. Similarly, another study showed that addiction to the internet, particularly social media, is connected with depression and poor quality of satisfaction with life, especially in children from low income homes, regardless of country of residence.
While technology is meant to connect us, it can also lead to social isolation. Children who spend a lot of time using technology may become isolated from their peers and family, leading to loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Their empathy, and therefore their ability to relate to others, understand their emotions and form healthy relationships, can also be affected. A study on 793 participants aged 10 to 21 years indicated that social isolation can be caused by physical or emotional unavailability of parents, leading to emotional suppression in the child which may be linked to depression symptoms and loneliness.
Decreased physical activity
Anxiety, depression, and stress are linked to decreased physical activity levels. Reduced physical activity might result from excessive screen time, which can cause obesity, low energy levels, and decreased mental health. Some children may lose weight when they get engrossed with their technology because they are less likely to realise they are hungry, and even when they do, they may not want to take time off their phones or gadgets to eat.
Increased stress and decreased self-esteem
Children can struggle with emotional regulation due to the fast-paced and highly stimulating nature of technology, leading to increased stress and anxiety. Children may also experience fear of missing out (FOMO) due to constantly comparing their lives to others on social media, leading to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
Additionally, children who use technology to keep up with their peers may feel pressure always to be online and connected, which can be stressful and impact their mental health. A review of 46 independent studies on 192,950 young people found that 15% of females and 26% of males reported the internet or social media affecting their mental health.
Sleep disturbance and poor-quality sleep
The bright screens of electronic devices emit a blue light that can suppress the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, interfering with the natural sleep cycle, causing sleep disturbances, and affecting mental health. This disturbance in the sleep cycle can lead to sleep deprivation, a reduction in the amount of sleep humans get, and how soundly they sleep, all of which has been linked to depression, anxiety, and irritability.
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Children who spend time online are more vulnerable to cyberbullying. Cyberbullying involves using technology to harass, humiliate, or threaten someone. It is a major problem that can harm a child's mental health in the long run. Children who experience cyberbullying may feel isolated, rejected, and embarrassed, leading to depression and anxiety.
Exposure to harmful content
Children may be exposed to inappropriate or harmful content when using the Internet, which can affect their mental health and overall well-being. The body self-image of girls may be harmed by online games that emphasise looks. One study found that the demand for sexualised apparel served as an example of how easily children can internalise or absorb social cues regarding sexualisation: internalisations harmed their perception of their bodies.
How can I limit the effects of technology on my children?
If you notice that your child or ward is showing one or more of the signs of the effects above, here are some things you can do to assist:
Limit screen time: Limiting screen time is an important step in protecting children's mental health. Parents can limit the time children spend using technology either directly (many devices allow parents to do this) or indirectly by encouraging them to engage in other activities such as playing outside, reading, or spending time with friends and family. The World Health Organization recommends that children under 5 years shouldn't engage in passive activities in front of a smartphone, computer, or TV screen for longer than 60 minutes per day, while infants (younger than 12 months old) should not use electronics for even a brief period.
Encourage physical activity: Physical activity is important for children's physical and mental health. Parents can encourage children to engage in physical activity by playing sports, taking walks, or participating in other physical activities together. Encourage children to engage in physical activities, such as sports, to promote overall well-being.
Encourage healthy sleep habits: Healthy sleep habits are important for children's mental health. Parents can encourage children to turn off their electronic devices at least an hour before bed and create a relaxing bedtime routine that promotes sleep. Encourage children to establish healthy sleep habits, such as avoiding screens before bedtime.
Foster face-to-face interactions: Encourage children to interact face-to-face with friends and family to reduce social isolation and promote positive mental health. Teach them the importance of being present "in" the moment by observing good technology hygiene, including not allowing phones at dinner or teaching them to put their phones away when they are being spoken to.
Teach safe online behaviour: Teach children about safe online behaviour, including how to recognise and report cyberbullying and monitor the content they are accessing online to ensure that it is age appropriate.
Seek professional help: If a child is struggling with their mental health, seek professional help to address the issue and provide support. It is important you make your child trust you, so it is easier for them to talk to you whenever they are struggling for any reason.
You can make a difference
Technology can greatly affect children's mental health if they have no guidance or are allowed to use too much of it, which can feel like an overwhelming task in the world that we live in. But all is not lost. You, as a parent or caregiver, have the power to instil a healthy relationship between your children and technology, hopefully with the help of these tips!