As part of Children and Screens’ ongoing support and curation of cutting-edge, objective, scientifically-rigorous interdisciplinary research, we invited nearly 140 preeminent experts from 10 different disciplines in 22 workgroups to compile the latest research on the effects of media on growth and development, cognition and mental health in toddlers, children and adolescents.
The resulting findings were aggregated and published in a special supplement, “Children, Adolescents, and Screens: What We Know and What We Need to Learn”, in the highly-regarded journal Pediatrics, released on November 1, 2017.
Subsequent new research has also been synthesized and presented where applicable.
There have always been concerns about the impact of media on children’s mental health, and these concerns have been growing with the advent of newer technologies, which allow children to have access to an even wider array of content in an interactive format. The impact of “traditional” media on children’s fears and anxieties has been studied for decades. There is ample evidence that TV and movies (including news broadcasts) can increase children’s fears and anxieties and often result in long-term anxieties and sleep disturbances. There is a great deal of current interest in the potential of newer media, especially social media, to increase children’s level of anxiety and depression. Emerging research topics include (a) whether exposure to other people’s social media postings promotes anxiety and depression by making other people’s lives seem more fun and exciting than theirs; (b) whether dependence on social media increases anxiety by reducing the ability to regulate one’s emotions; (c) whether the use of social media increases anxiety and depression by reducing face-to- face interactions resulting in skill deficits; (d) whether anxiety increases due to worries about being inadequately connected to peers or being left out; and (e) whether anxiety, depression, and suicide occur as the result of cyberbullying and related behavior. Correlational results have been observed in these areas, but it is premature to determine the direction of causality.
While growing evidence substantiates a link between digital media use and symptoms of depression, research also suggests that digital communication could be used as a social tool to improve mood and to promote healthy behaviors—especially in people who are not depressed.
Should I be concerned about my children’s use of social media?
That depends on how much time they are spending and the content and context of that use. Social media provides a tool for youth to stay in touch with their friends and potentially deepen their peer relationships. But social media can also be a conduit for cyberbullying, which can be emotionally devastating. In addition, over-use of any media can interfere with other important activities.
What can parents do to help their children cope with scary movies or TV shows?
Different strategies can be helpful for children of different ages. For young children (pre-school), give them your calm, warm attention, offer a favorite stuffed animal to hug, or distract their attention from the program. These noncognitive strategies work best for this age group. Older children (late elementary and older) are more likely to respond to cognitive strategies, so remind them that a fictional show is fake or talk to them about ways to keep them safe. It is typically very difficult to calm a child who has been frightened by something in the media. Therefore, the best strategy is to help your children avoid content that you would expect them to find frightening.
Does using social media increase the chances that my child will commit suicide?
Suicide, like all human behaviors, is incredibly complicated and is not caused by a single factor. There seem to be some online behaviors or experiences that can increase the risk of suicide. Being a victim of cyberbullying, is one example, but experiencing any type of bullying is known to increase thoughts about suicide. The internet does provide young people with access to stories and conversations about suicide, but it may also be a source of social support and helpful information. Youth with existing thoughts of suicide or self-injurious behaviors are likely at greater risk for any potential online influences. As with many media effects, the impact of internet use on suicide depends on specifics of the individual and the online experience.
- There is much research evidence that various aspects of “traditional” media (TV, movies) can increase children’s acute fears, which can result in lingering anxieties and related sleep disturbances that can be difficult to remedy.
- Recent research has begun to deal with the interactive nature of social media and its potential to influence anxiety and depression in youth. Emerging research topics include how social media use relates to anxiety and depression through (a) feelings of inadequacy relative to “friends;” (b) the inability to regulate emotions; (c) fewer face-to-face interactions resulting in skill deficits; (d) worries about being disconnected or left out; and (e) cyberbullying and related behavior. Correlational results have been observed in these areas, but it is premature to make causal connections.
- A growing body of research confirms the relationship between digital media use and depression. Although there is evidence that greater electronic media use is associated with depressive symptoms, there is also evidence that the social nature of digital communication may be harnessed in some situations to improve mood and to promote health-enhancing strategies especially in non-depressed populations. Much more research is needed to explore these possibilities.
Guidelines for Parents
- Ensure that children’s media use is directed (used for a specific purpose and not as a default activity) and is balanced with other important activities, such as face-to-face interactions with friends and family, physical activities, hobbies, school work, and sleep.
- Guide children to age-appropriate content using ratings, reviews, plot descriptions, and prior screening.
- Be aware of the content children are viewing and the social media apps they are using.
- Be engaged with your child’s online life by setting up their social media accounts with them, friending and following them on the platforms they use, and communicating with them regularly about their experiences on social media and online.
- Encourage children to avoid screen media (and especially scary or intense media experiences) near bedtime, and make bedrooms media-free zones (this includes smartphones!).
- Be sensitive to children’s moods and be prepared to engage in discussions of negative emotions that may be the result of media use.
- Carefully monitor the internet use of young people with signs of depression and self-injurious behaviors and seek advice from your child’s mental health provider or clinician on how to best to ensure your child is safe online.
Hoge, E., Bickham, D., & Cantor, J. (2017). Digital Media, Anxiety, and Depression in Children. Pediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758G
The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each paper are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor do they represent an endorsement by, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.