Sarah, a mom I know,worries about whether her teen daughter’s constant phone use is a problem. “She seems so distant even though we are in the same house. She is always on her phone, in a world that I am not a part of. I don’t know how to connect with my own daughter.”
Sound familiar? Have these thoughts crossed your mind more than once? Sarah (and you!) are not alone. Connecting with your teenager has always been a challenge, but there’s no question that smartphones and social media have added extra obstacles. And with depression rates soaring in teens over the past 10 years, especially for girls, that need for parents to be connected with their children is more important than ever.
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In just 10 years, depression in teens has gone up significantly — and the rates for girls have now reached historically high rates. Tracking study subjects over a 12-month period, depression increased among girls from about 13 percent in 2005 to about 17 percent in 2014. The increase was much lower among boys, rising from about 4 percent in 2005 to about 6 percent in 2014.
And that’s even excluding risk factors such as family economic status and substance abuse. The study out of Johns Hopkins didn’t successfully identify other risk factors that could possibly account for this sharp rise in depression, but the authors suggested a potential link with technology and social media use, particularly among teenage girls. Teens today are more technologically connected than ever before, spending increasingly more time communicating with peers through text messages, social media, and instant messenger apps. And which gender reports higher use of visually-oriented social media — such as Instagram and Snapchat? Girls.
“Technology and social media send constant reminders of how you should look, talk, dress,” says child and adolescent psychologist Marion Wallace, assistant professor of the University of Alabama School of Medicine. “There’s an unspoken standard, one that’s unrealistic and unhealthy.” Wallace says those constant reminders can lead to feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness in teen girls. “Helping our girls conceptualize their worth in domains outside of physical attraction is the first step in developing stable high esteem and combating depression.”
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In this hyper-connected, media-saturated culture, distraction can become an easy coping technique during times of stress.While this can help girls feel better and less tense in the moment, it ultimately does not address the root cause of stress and depression.
But don’t throw out your teen’s mobile devices just yet (for many families that’s just not realistic). Integrating these small but mighty tips can be a big step toward teaching your daughter how to balance technology and mental wellness.
1. Have technology-free family time
Parents should model healthy behaviors for how to interact and communicate. This means unplugging and authentically connecting face to face. It can be as simple as a no-screen policy at dinnertime. Sure, it may seem simple, but family-oriented activities have been infiltrated by electronic devices. Children learn how to communicate, interact, and express their thoughts and feelings by watching their parents. This learning doesn’t stop in the teen years. Implementing tech-free time also opens up the door for teens to disclose thoughts and feelings they may not otherwise offer up. What matters is setting a limit and sticking to it.
2. Encourage self-imposed limits for technology use
Talk to your teen about the importance of setting her own limits on technology use. Encourage her to even monitor her mood and stress level while using technology — and to recognize if she needs to take a break. This type of self-monitoring will facilitate your teen’s awareness of potential negative influences of technology. It also allows opportunities for the practice of prudence, self-regulation, and reflection. Invite her to come up with a reasonable time limit for technology use throughout the day.
3. Teach healthy expectations for social media use
Don’t let social media become an overly important part of your teen’s self-identity. The practice of comparison may influence how teens interpret media messages, which are known to influence self-concept factors like body image. Explain how social media overwhelmingly showcases a skewed image of a person that is not always based in reality. Discuss the importance of moderation when using social media as a communication tool, emphasizing both the positive and negative aspects of its use. Social media can be a great way for your teen to stay connected with her friends by sharing experiences, thoughts, and feelings. But social media should always be used as a way to supplement — not replace — IRL relationships. Encourage your teen to continue spending quality in-person time with her friends and to regularly participate in activities promoting positive self-growth, like a spiritual retreat.
4. Teach healthy coping/stress management strategies
Practicing simple mindfulness techniques can also help teens experiencing stress from social media recognize thoughts as thoughts, not one’s identity. Encouraging your teen to regularly exercise mindfulness techniques — such as focusing on the physical experience of breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or engaging in prayer — can steer attention away from negative thoughts and worry, increase tolerance for uncomfortable feelings, and help your teen to stay focused in the present.
5. Watch for behavior changes and seek help
If you notice your teen seems more irritable or sad than usual, withdrawn, disinterested in socializing, has changes in sleep or appetite patterns, or any other major behavior change, don’t hesitate to talk to her about it. Directly address these concerns with your teen, and talk to her doctor or a licensed mental health professional. There are many great treatments for depression, and professional help can prevent escalation of symptoms.
Try these tips at home, and remember to keep the lines of communication with your teen open.