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Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
January 8, 2024 ·  5 min read

The Scary Truth About How Technology is Harming Our Children’s Mental Health

The world many parents grew up in is vastly different than the one they are raising kids in today. Back then gadgets were limited, but now everyone has a screen in their pocket, including young children. We know social media could have toxic effects on adults, but the effects on children could be even worse. 

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, believes that those who grow up pasted to a screen are on the “brink of a mental-health crisis.” 

Study Shows that Teens with More Screen Time Consider Themselves “Not Happy” 

This claim may not surprise anyone—after all, the harm of the online world is well-documented. Still, many may resist it since they can’t imagine life being any other way. Sharing personal details, being aware of what everyone else is up to, using smartphones as a clutch to escape of boredom… It’s normalized, so people assume it can’t be that bad. 

Jean Twenge’s study showed that teens who spent more than an hour or so on their gadgets were on average less happy than those who had more in-person interaction with others. [1] The study drew from a survey that included hundreds of thousands of American teens.  

It also found about 13% of eighth to tenth graders who spent about 1–2 hours a week on social media considered themselves “not happy”. Those who spent about 10–19 hours a week, 18% were “not happy”. For those who spent 40 hours or more a week, the percentage was 24. 

When it came to twelfth graders, however, the negative connections between screen time and psychology decreased somewhat, and the correlation wasn’t always there. For example, teens with no screen time had higher rates of unhappiness than those who went online for a few hours every week.  

Twenge’s conclusions have stirred up controversy in the past with people accusing her of oversimplifying or overlooking data. She admits her study only shows a correlation between screen time and psychological wellbeing. This does not show not whether screen time directly changes the participants’ mental health. 

“I spent my career in technology. I wasn’t prepared for its effect on my kids,” says philanthropist Melinda Gates, whose three children were also born after 1995. “Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up.” [2] 

The Fact is Kids Are Not Well  

People disagree that technology is to blame for adolescent unhappiness, but there’s no denying the decline in teen mental health. 

Being a teenager already hard with all of the new changes, drama, and emotions. But for some, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to diagnostic interview data from the National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement, about 49.5% of adolescents aged 13–18 have a mental disorder. The survey included over 10,000 adolescents in the US. [3] 

Not only that, but there’s been a drastic increase of people aged 12–20 who have experienced a major depressive episode. Despite this 37% increase of MDE in teens, there hasn’t been a correlating spike in mental health treatment for this age group. This means there are many young people who are under-treated or not treated at all. Additionally, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, over 3 million adolescents from ages 12–17 reported severe depression that disrupted their daily lives.  

Guidance counselors like Ellen Chance in Palm Beach affirm the connection between technology, online bullying, and kids’ mental health. “I couldn’t tell you how many students are being malicious to each other over Instagram. 

“I’ve had cases where girls don’t to come to school and they are cutting themselves and becoming severely depressed because they feel outcasted and targeted.”

She sees cutting incidents almost weekly at her elementary school, a clear sign that not all is well with today’s youth. [4] 

What Parents Can Do to Raise Mentally Healthier Teens 

Some mental illnesses are shaped by the environment the children grow up in. The good news is parents can be responsible for changing this. Often, parents are digitally distracted and let kids “rule the world”. They cultivate a sense of entitlement to their kids instead of responsibility. Children lead a sedentary indoor lifestyle with unbalanced diets and inadequate sleep. And then there’s the unbalance of technology use. Kids are being endless stimulated, babysat by screens, taught to expect instant gratification, and unable to cope with dull moments.  

Setting limits falls onto the parents, not the kids. Differentiate between what the children want versus what they need and say no when it’s required. Don’t protect them from small failures; stumbling will give them the skills to overcome challenges and succeed. 

Here are some ideas on how to create a more stable and healthier lifestyle for children: 

  • Enforce a technology-free family dinner 
  • Involve the child in one chore a day and ensure they are responsible for it. (I.e. if the child doesn’t do his laundry, he won’t have clean clothes.) 
  • Implement a consistent sleep routine in a technology-free bedroom 
  • Teach the children skills instead of doing it for them. (For example, teaching a 5-year-old to peel a banana instead of doing it for him every time.) 
  • Teach independence (for example, have them pack their own backpacks and lunches.) 
  • Don’t rush to save the child from small failures. (For example, don’t rush to school to bring him a forgotten lunch.) [5] 

When it comes to boredom, don’t allow technology to be their sole entertainment. Allow them to learn how to entertain themselves through creativity. 

  • Give the child time to play without parents or technology. 
  • Avoid screens during mealtime, in cars, restaurants, etc. These moments can help train the child’s brain to function when faced with boredom. 

Most importantly, be emotionally available for kids. This will help teach them how to regulate their emotions and develop social skills. 

  • Turn off your own electronics while the kids are around so they could have your full attention 
  • Help coach your kids to recognize their feelings. 
  • Talk to your kids about why they should come to you if anything is wrong. Ensure they know that you will do everything to help them. 
  1. “Decreases in psychological well-being among American adolescents after 2012 and links to screen time during the rise of smartphone technology.” Twenge, J. M., Martin, G. N., & Campbell, W. K. American Psychological Association. Emotion. 2018 
  1. “Screen time: Mental health menace or scapegoat?” Michael Nedelman, CNN. February 28, 2018 
  1. “Mental Illness.” National Institute of Mental Health. February 2019 
  1. “There’s a Startling Increase in Major Depression Among Teens in the U.S.” Susanna Schrobsdorff. Time. November 15, 2016 
  1. “The silent tragedy affecting today’s children.” Victoria Prooday.