The year 2012 was the moment our kids lost their childhood.
Recent research out of the United States reveals a sharp decrease in wellbeing among adolescents from 2012 onwards — the year when smartphone ownership became commonplace among teens.
Using survey data from 1.1 million young people, the researchers found that adolescents who spent more time on social media, texting, gaming and the internet were less happy, had lower self-esteem and lower satisfaction with their lives.
But what about the wellbeing of Australian adolescents? As someone who works with thousands of young Australians each year to prevent mental ill-health, I repeatedly get asked if rates of mental illness in young Australians are increasing and if so, what has caused it.
Well, yes, rates of youth mental ill-health do appear to be on the rise here.
The recent 'report card' by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) revealed an increase in the number of young Australians experiencing "high or very high" psychological distress between 2011 and 2015, while the most recent annual Mission Australia Youth Survey found for the first time that mental health was now the #1 concern of young people.
So, should we ban the smartphone? Are there any other factors contributing to this rise?
Having spent years conducting research and working in the area of preventing mental health problems in young people, I have made some observations that may help explain this, and more importantly, what to do about it.
WHY IS IT GETTING WORSE?
Two major changes in the last 10 to 15 years have significantly altered the psychological environment in which kids grow up: technology and parenting practices.
Smartphones, gaming over Wi-Fi and social media platforms have combined to alter the way young people spend their time. These technology-based pursuits have taken them away from non-screen activities that are associated with greater wellbeing.
The US study found that adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities such as face-to-face social interactions and exercise were likely to be happier.
The link between activity levels and mood is clear. Real-world social activity and exercise are a part of maintaining good mental health, while being withdrawn from social activity and exercise can be both a symptom and a cause of problems such as depression.
Social media has also allowed kids to compare themselves to an unlimited number of peers and idols who present unrealistic, highly-selective images of their appearance and lifestyles. The end result for teens? Feeling not good enough.
DOES THIS MEAN WE SHOULD BAN KIDS FROM SMARTPHONES?
No, but we should limit their use. The survey evidence suggests a few hours use per week was actually associated with higher happiness than no screen time at all, but then happiness tends to decline with greater use.
Coinciding with the boom of smartphones and internet technologies has been one other big difference for adolescents growing up today: the way they are parented.
Gen X and Gen Y parents have become known for an ironic process — being so diligent in wanting their children to be safe and happy that they sometimes do too much for their kids. This actually prevents their kids from becoming as capable or well-adjusted as those who are allowed to experience a range of normal difficulties and disappointments growing up.
My colleague Dr Judith Locke calls this phenomenon 'over parenting', also known as 'helicopter parenting': being over-protective and too quick to solve problems and overcome challenges on the child's behalf.
Over parenting inhibits the natural building of distress tolerance and problem-solving skills — the precise qualities that kids need to be resilient when life's inevitable challenges crop up. It is born out of love and good intentions, but over parenting can actually get in the way of kids' healthy psychological development.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
There are actually plenty of practical strategies that can help support your child's psychological wellbeing over the long-term.
• Limit time on devices.
• Providing a smartphone to your child should be based on a clear agreement. Teens should meet their responsibilities first (i.e. homework, chores), then they get screen time.
• After a set time at night, phones should go away, and not be allowed in the bedroom overnight (phones in bedrooms can also contribute to poor sleep habits).
We should also look to the positive opposite of the withdrawn, socially disengaged behaviours associated with smartphone use:
• Encourage kids to engage in face-to-face social activities.
• Playing sports, especially team sports (this is a natural resilience-builder for kids).
• Parents shouldn't be afraid to directly coach their kids on social skills.
Parents can reduce over-parenting by letting their kids take on challenges and responsibility knowing that sometimes disappointment and failure are a part of that.
• Look for ways to expand your kids' comfort zone in a gradual, age-appropriate way because taking on challenges, becoming independent and having responsibility will all help to build your child's capacity to handle future challenges.
Finally, parents should coach their kids to challenge the 'perfect' images and scenarios found on social media.
• Prompt your teen to ask two key questions when consuming any kind of social media: (1) 'What is not realistic about this image?', and (2) 'How are they trying to influence me?'
Following these strategies will help your kids grow up more engaged, active and capable — and will help get them their childhood back.
* Dr Tom Nehmy is a clinical psychologist and founder of the Healthy Minds Program.
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• The Word
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.