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Children’s mental health and the digital environment

Children’s mental health and the digital environment

With an estimated 13 per cent of the global adolescent population aged 12-19 years – or 166 million children – living with a mental disorder, a recent article in www.parenting.digital examines whether internet use impacts on children’s wellbeing, looking at the factors that make a difference between wellbeing and harm.

Its author, Dr Maria Stoilova, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says awareness about the importance of mental health has grown through reports of the perceived negative impact of COVID-19 on children and young people’s wellbeing,

Examining UNICEF’s new flagship report, State of the World’s Children 2021 – On My Mind: Promoting, protecting and caring for children’s mental health, Dr Stoilova says the report “conveys a sense of urgency in tackling children’s mental health risks and calls for commitment, communication and action”.

However, it leaves out important discussions around children’s mental health generally and doesn’t include the role of the digital environment.

“If it does, it focussed more on the risk aspects, rather than the benefits,” she said.

This is what she has learned from several recent research projects in  Adolescent mental health and development in the digital worldGlobal Kids OnlineySKILLS, and euConsent:

Helping children to develop resilience against negative online experiences is a great way to protect them

Children encounter both risks and opportunities online and their ability to self-regulate their media use and avoid the negative effects makes a difference between experiencing beneficial or harmful outcomes.

“Supportive and enabling parenting, where children are encouraged to use the internet and shown how to do this safely, is one of the key factors in the development of children’s digital resilience,” Dr Stoilova said.

“Developing children’s digital skills and pro-active online engagement can also help them make the most of the opportunities and avoid online risks.

“There are limits, however, to how far children and parents can be expected to meet the challenges of the digital environment, and this is where regulation will be important.”

We need to stop focusing on screen time and start paying more attention to online activities and experiences

Limiting children’s time online has been a “quick fix” for parents who are worried about negative effects from internet use but the evidence suggests that this is not the correct approach, Dr Stoilova said.

“Screen time restrictions limit also the benefits and in the long run can have negative consequences on children’s skills, learning and participation.

“Instead, we should focus on what children do when they are online, which has an impact on their mental health.

“Limiting children’s access to age-inappropriate content, for example by using tools such as parental controls, can reduce their risk exposure. It is also important to make sure that children’s online engagement does not interfere with other important aspects of their life, like sleeping, playing, socialising offline, and being physically active.”

Friendships and online communities can help children with their mental health

The internet affords children important communication and socialising opportunities, which became particularly valuable for maintaining friendships during COVID and staying in touch with family, she said.

“Children often recognise that these connections help them to cope and support their mental health and wellbeing. In situations when children are struggling with mental difficulties, online communities can offer unique support as they provide a strong connection, non-judgmental understanding, and a feeling of belonging.

“Online visibility of mental health issues can also contribute to removing the existing social taboo and can empower those struggling.”

The internet can provide valuable access to health-related information and access to mental health support services

Online children can access vital health information, especially when other health care resources and services are lacking or children feel unable to reach out to traditional child support services.

“Online services are usually seen as more accessible and providing greater privacy and anonymity, making them particularly appealing to hard-to-reach or vulnerable children, she said.

“Digital technology is also becoming an important part of mental health support services assisting in identification, signposting and treatment.”

Mental health is a continuum – not only from good to poor mental health but also from offline to digital – and children move along it

Children’s mental health and vulnerability are complex and usually involve a combination of risk factors, from their social environment and their digital engagement.

“Some children, however, are more vulnerable than others – those who are vulnerable offline are also more likely to be vulnerable online and children who experience one kind of online risk are also more likely to experience others.

“We also know that children with more severe mental health issues and those who cannot find help elsewhere tend to turn to the digital environment more often. This can be particularly concerning in the light of recent discussions of how digital design can put children at risk and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities,” she said.

The strong demand for action called by UNICEF must be met by the joint efforts of regulators, industry, child practitioners, educators and parents if we are to tackle children’s mental health and wellbeing in their full complexity, Dr Stoilova said.

“Such efforts need to place a strong emphasis on the digital, not only as a crucial factor in children’s everyday lives but also due to its positive potential for mental health diagnosis, treatment, and support.

“The digital environment is not without its limitations and harmful effects. Hence, we need an approach that strikes a balance between minimising the risks and maximising the beneficial and protective factors, digital and non-digital.”