The rise in screen time and how it relates to increasing concerns about South African youth's mental health

The increase in screen time may have made children's suffering worse if they were already experiencing injury or hurt, whether it was online or off. Picture: Reuters

The increase in screen time may have made children's suffering worse if they were already experiencing injury or hurt, whether it was online or off. Picture: Reuters

Published Jun 15, 2023


Millions of children and teenagers' lives have been reduced to only their homes and their screens under the shadow of Covid-19.

Online gaming, socialising, and learning soon become the sole options for many people.

While digital tools and technology offer many chances to keep kids engaged, delighted, and learning, they can also put them at greater risk for a variety of dangers.

Before the epidemic, children's rights, safety, and mental health were all at risk from online sexual exploitation, dangerous content, false information, and cyberbullying.

The increase in screen time may have made children's suffering worse if they were already experiencing injury or hurt, whether it was online or off.

Some of the protective mechanisms that were available to them were disrupted and limited as a result of school closings, physical separation, reduced services, and greater burden on already vulnerable families.

According to Unicef, worries over children's physical and mental health are growing as some data points to a link between increasing online time and decreased outdoor activity, poorer sleep, more severe anxiety symptoms, and unhealthy eating patterns.

It can be challenging for teenagers and their parents to navigate an ever-changing digital landscape because the advantages and possible risks of the online world don't exist separately from one another.

According to Carey van Vlaanderen, CEO of ESET Southern Africa, the key is to strike a balance between encouraging responsible online behaviour and guarding against threats.

The World Health Organization lists behavioural problems, anxiety, and depression as some of the main causes of sickness and incapacity in teenagers.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey conducted in the United States indicated that 57% of young girls reported feeling ‘’persistently sad or hopeless’’ and that one in three high school girls had given suicide a serious thought.

According to the most recent Unicef South Africa U-Report study, 73% of children and youth in South Africa believed they required mental health care in 2022, but only 38% actively sought assistance.

Organisations like the Centre for Human Technology and well-known psychologists and researchers like Jonathan Haidt contend that social media is a significant factor in the mental health crisis affecting young people.

They claim that rates of adolescent depression, anxiety, and self-harm spiked sharply around 2012, just as daily social media use among teens through smartphones and apps started to become pervasive.

According to the Centre for Humane Technology, children and teenagers' development and general well-being may suffer long-term effects from exposure to excessive levels of digital technology.

It's vital to be aware of the role that social media and digital platforms can play as sources of stress, anxiety, and negative self-image for young people, even though not all studies demonstrate a direct connection between social media use and worse mental health outcomes globally.

It can be challenging for parents to guide their children through these difficult issues.

However, it is feasible to support young people in maintaining a good self-image while they create healthy interactions with social media with the correct knowledge and supervision.

It is crucial to have ongoing, unrestricted conversations that are devoid of moralising and fear-mongering.

Since the digital environment is a fundamental and inescapable part of our lives, talking to kids about online safety and encouraging the development of excellent digital skills should come naturally.

The first step in the right direction, whether at home or in schools, is to create a supportive environment where mental health can be openly discussed.

It is important to encourage and validate conversations regarding body image, especially with girls, and the pressures they could be under due to images in the media or on social media.

Even if social media has its advantages, it's critical to remember that virtual communities can never fully replace in-person interactions.

It's crucial for parents and other adults to be aware of what teenagers are doing online.

Cooperative strategies can include open communication, setting ground rules around which platforms are appropriate and how much screen usage is healthy.

Teenagers can and frequently do grasp the negative effects of excessive screen use. Young people may be more thoughtful about their online lives and which platforms make them feel good, protected, and powerful and which ones don't by coming to an understanding of the potentially damaging effects of spending too much time online.

With the proper knowledge and cybersecurity tools, parents and teenagers will be better able to take use of the online world.

A useful digital skill is understanding online privacy and how to use the safety features of various social media platforms.

Additionally, security and parental control software can assist adults in curating the categories of content that teenagers access on all of their internet-connected devices, including laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

Help and services are offered to teens and families who are concerned about their mental health.

A list of free helplines and support groups is provided by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

Additionally, there are several online resources for parents, teachers, and teenagers that offer interactive activities and guidance for navigating the modern digital world with confidence.

Read the latest issue of HEALTH digital magazine here.