Globally, 1 in 3 internet users is under age 18, according to a 2019 report by UNICEF. U.S. teens use screens more than seven hours a day on average—and that’s not including schoolwork, CNN reports. Cyberbullying and discrimination, body image comparison, exposure to mature content, obsession caused by targeted marketing, and formation of addictive or self-harm related habits are some of the problems resulting from time spent online.
The U.S. government reports that half of all mental health disorders show first signs before an individual turns 14, and three-quarters of mental health disorders begin before age 24. In this digital era, mental health among students continues to worsen. In a post-pandemic survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40% of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless, possibly experiencing depressive symptoms.
In June, community-based nonprofit Mental Health America (MHA) held its 2023 National Policy Institute. Researchers, education leaders, and mental health experts discussed the impact of internet use on children’s mental health. MHA calls on all child and education advocates to ask local, state, and federal leaders to promote child safety and privacy online.
Urging School Leaders to Engage Policymakers
MHA urges school leaders to engage Congress to enact technology policies that address harms attributed to online platforms, such as the Kids Online Safety Act and the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act. Age restriction policies on social media platforms often fail, as children whose parents ban them from social media discover hidden software applications or various third-party apps to access the same content. (Visit http://www.passkosa.org to learn more about the new safety act.)
MHA and other organizations strongly believe that restrictions without better regulating content are not effective. Currently, California is the only state to enact an age-appropriate design code law. States like Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, and New Mexico have introduced similar legislation. At the federal level, some actions are being taken to make the internet a safer place for children. For example,
The Federal Trade Commission recently proposed new protections called “Blanket Prohibition Preventing Facebook from Monetizing Youth Data.”
The U.S. Surgeon General just released advisories on social media and youth mental health and social isolation and loneliness, both of which include recommendations for policymakers to support fostering a sense of belonging, meaningful social connections, and youth mental health online and offline.
Congress recently funded a Center of Excellence for Adolescent Social Media Use, the mission of which is to promote healthful social media use and pediatric mental well-being, and to create a healthful digital ecosystem for children and youth.
District practices that direct students to use social media in healthful ways include checking, educating, and setting boundaries. In Washington, for example, a district has developed rules and guidelines around the use of social media, such as complying with the school district’s student conduct requirements when posting and sharing on social media. District policies also should ensure that students' use of social media promotes belonging, connection, and creativity rather than isolation and exclusion. Pew Research findings show that many teens credit social media platforms with providing important space for connection and creativity.
Free Screening Tool
To advocate for student mental health, including prevention and early treatment, parents and educators need screening tools. School-based universal mental health screening is feasible for school districts and can provide important information about the emotional and behavioral health of students. In 2014, MHA launched a collection of online mental health screenings. The free, confidential, anonymous, and scientifically validated screening tools help individuals understand and learn more about their mental health.
According to MHA, with more than 15 million mental health tests taken—over 5 million in 2021 alone—the online screening program has collected the largest data set from a help-seeking population. From among screenings taken by youth on MHA’s website, body image or self-image (70%), school or work problems (53%), interpersonal relationship problems (52%) and loneliness or isolation (50%) are the top four factors contributing to mental health problems.
Listening to Students
The recent MHA advocacy event included young people, who are the most fervent social media users, reminding policymakers that they would be well advised to listen to the voice of students. During the event, recent high school graduate Keegan Lee, coauthor of the book, 60 Days of Disconnect, shared her life experience of breaking social media addiction and what she wishes she had known about neuropathways and behavior psychology before engaging in social media. She has created a digital literacy curriculum to help others navigate the internet in healthful ways [Keegan W. Lee | Mental Health America (mhanational.org)].