Opinion: Digital media addiction is a pandemic for teens and children

Kakaia, Ph.D., is an integrative psychologist and neurofeedback practitioner who practices in the Sorrento Valley. She lives at Ranch 4S.

As a psychologist and neuroscientist whose main non-drug method of treatment is neurofeedback, the headlines we keep reading about our children’s mental health can seem very disheartening and overwhelming. This article is primarily going to focus on tiny, but very important things that families can do to build resilience in our children and teens.

On December 7, when Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the mental health crisis in our children, it prompted me to act on the need to give families hope. This recognition at the highest level was necessary to highlight the importance of this issue.

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Murthy gave six strong recommendations which can be read on the HHS website. What was disturbingly missing was the powerful role that social media plays in deteriorating the mental health of our teens. He cited all relevant statistics for rising rates of depression and suicidality over the past decade, but did not make the connection to iPhones and excessive gaming. The soup of digital media addiction is a distinct pandemic that directly affects the brain health of our tweens and teens. Youth programs can play a very important role in creating a supportive community in real life. It’s the experience teens need to feel connected and have a real sense of belonging.

Teens and kids need groups that allow them to feel connected and diffuse the tension they feel when bombarded with requests on social media.

Youth groups such as Girl Scouts, TVIA (Teen Volunteers in Action), NCL (National Charity League), Boy Scouts, Kids Korps, Boys and Girls Club of America, David’s Harp, So Say We All, United Women of East Africa and various programs with the YMCA have all been fertile ground for children and teens to connect and continue to feel the camaraderie of a shared experience. This allows them to feel less isolated and to have a purpose. The feeling of being part of a real community where you give back is one of the most powerful antidotes to depression. Girl Scouts San Diego has badges aimed at emotional literacy and increasing resilience. When girls work on it together, it helps them develop bonds, sisterhood and a deep sense of connection that lasts a lifetime.

The contamination factor with social media has made our youth extremely fragile. The sad reality is that parents do not raise their children, but social networks do. Teenagers today don’t know how to handle conflict and have experiences of in-person conflict resolution. They may have huge disagreements over texts and haven’t learned the skills to charter the waters of conflict.

Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok don’t allow failures – they only demand perfection. Failure is an essential stepping stone to success.

Here are some tips where we parents can be active mentors for our children:

– Teach them to develop thick skin. This is going to be the most important ingredient for them if they are going to be in the social media world.

– They should let go of the desire for comfort and go into growing pains. Teach them to be okay with the edge of their emotional pain and the importance of learning from uncomfortable feelings.

– Teach them to postpone immediate gratification for long-term goals.

– When they are struggling, remind them of past times when they overcame obstacles and remind them of how they became stronger as a result of this blow (this helps them not to be victims of their lives). It’s grain.

– Remember that their doubts can sabotage them a lot. Teach them to be critical thinkers about how social media can make them question and doubt themselves.

– Teach them to have a positive inner dialogue. If they’re shaming or putting themselves down, teach them to be kind to themselves and develop an internal language of self-compassion.

– Teach your children the power of emotional expression and especially how to be vulnerable. Social media makes them worry about appearing flawed in any way. All feelings should be allowed to be expressed and we should teach our children that expressing “good” feelings is just as important as expressing “uncomfortable” feelings.

Many teenagers are so emotionally paralyzed that they don’t know how to tolerate distress.

Parents – you have these skills. Teach them to your kids so Instagram and TikTok don’t bring them up.