Johannesburg - IT security software company ESET Southern Africa’s CEO, Carey van Vlaanderen, says increased exposure to harmful content, cyberbullying, age-inappropriate advertising, and data misuse in the digital space can be detrimental for the youth’s mental well-being.
Van Vlaanderen says there is also growing concern both internationally and in South Africa over the link between social media use and rising rates of teen depression and anxiety.
“Because the benefits and potential threats of the online world don’t exist separately from one another, it can be difficult for teens and their parents to navigate an ever-changing digital landscape. It’s all about finding a good middle ground between promoting healthy online use and taking a proactive approach against the risks,” said Van Vlaanderen.
According to a 2022 Unicef South Africa U-Report poll, some 73% of children and youth felt they needed mental health support.
The poll was conducted using Unicef South Africa’s U-Report polling platform and received more than 6 600 responses, with 85% of those from children and young people aged 15 to 30 years.
“Some 74% of youth who helped a friend noted that they chatted about their issues, while others referred their peers to another friend or family member, online help, a counsellor, or a medical facility,” added the report.
The report pointed out that succeeding in education and the need for work skills, training, and employment opportunities were cited as causing the most anxiety among 57% of respondents.
Van Vlaanderen also said that open, honest, and ongoing conversations that aren’t fearmongering or moralistic are crucial.
“The digital environment is a fundamental and unavoidable part of the world we live in, which means talking about online safety and encouraging the right digital skills should be as natural as talking about any other important issue that teens encounter,” she said.
She further pointed out that creating an enabling environment where mental health can be discussed openly is the first step in the right direction.
“Conversations about body image, particularly with girls, and the pressures they may be feeling from images in the media or on social media platforms should be encouraged and validated. While social media has its benefits, it’s important to keep in mind that online platforms can never be a replacement for real-world human connection,” added Van Vlaanderen.