Youth in distress


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The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) released a survey on July 21, 2016 that detailed every parent’s nagging suspicion: teens and tech make mental health much worse. 10,426 students in grades seven to 12 were surveyed across Ontario, and the results were compared with data previously collected throughout the years since 1991. The detailed report showed alarming spikes in youth feeling psychological distress, news made even more alarming by the fact that girls were almost twice as likely to experience these negative mental states.  

Researchers do mention that they can’t for certain tell what’s causing the distress, but the rise in online technology use strongly indicates that this is where it stems from. It has risen 57% since 2009, and most teens indicated that they spend over 3 hours of their day in front of a television or computer.  

It isn’t just a blanket sweep of all technology that is causing this. More specifically, they found that 86% of teens went on social media daily, which they know gives them a greater chance of experiencing cyber bullying. Along with social media use, an estimated 13% of teens report problem video gaming, which is defined as losing control, being preoccupied from other things, and disregard for consequences. To sum up: social media and problem video gaming are the causes of this spike in psychological distress.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics analyzed the impact of social media on adolescents in 2011, and though their findings seem slightly dated (they mention MySpace-is that still a thing?), the majority of aspects are still prevalent. They cite many benefits to the platform, including teens keeping in touch with friends and family, using the sites to connect for group projects to enhance their educational experience, and being able to access healthcare information at the touch of a screen. They do mention many more risks, however, including cyber bullying, sexting, being unaware of their privacy or Internet footprint, etc.  

“It is both a cause and symptom,” said Lisa Pont, a social worker with the Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario (PGIO), a division of CAMH, who works with parents and youth to help manage their use of technology. “The research shows the more time you spend on social media the more likely you are to experience mental distress.”  

Pont mentioned that the leading cause is increased exposure to cyber bullying, but other factors can be anywhere from stressful news they see posted online, to constantly comparing themselves to the positive posts they see their peers make.  

“People tend to not post the most unattractive parts of their lives, and developing minds that are establishing their identity are constantly bombarded with the way they think things should look.”   

 Both CAMH and AAP recognize the fact that online technology use and social media have integrated into the fabric of society so deeply now that we cannot prevent teens from using either. With any seemingly normal behaviour that affects our mental health, it’s important to remember that it’s all about balance.  

Today most teens will need to use technology for research and education, but finding a happy medium for that can be challenging when they also come home from school to unwind and play video games. According to PGIO, more and more youth are coming to them seeking help for problem video gaming. Their statistics indicate that 21% of teens report playing video games daily, and 12% of them experience problem video gaming. The other interesting thing is that boys are four times more likely than girls to be the ones experiencing the latter.  

PGIO also mentions that those coming to them with video gaming problems also have co-occurring illnesses: 29% of their clients suffer from depression, 27% from anxiety, and 14% from ADD. 

There are lots of things parents can do to help avert these problems. Education and prevention are the strongest ways of combating mental distress in youth, and regulation can be a huge benefit whether teens know it or not.  

“Parents have a lot more control than they think,” Pont said. “They can be absolutely instrumental in finding other activities, limiting access, and being a positive role model for tech use.”   

Social media and gaming are relatively new in the grand scheme of human technology, and we now know what excessive use can lead to in young minds. With further education we can make enhancements to how folks enjoy these platforms without having them take away from their mental health. 

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