Balancing Digital: Helping Your Family Manage Ongoing Stress
Editor’s Note: This is part I in a series on helping families protect their mental and digital health in times of chronic stress. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice or treatment.
The data continues to confirm that living with the stress of a prolonged pandemic is taking a toll on the mental health of both the young and old. Add increased technology use to this state of chronic stress and there’s no doubt that families everywhere sit in the crosshairs of any number of mental health risks.
After nearly a year of isolation, stop-and-start school days, restricted travel, and the added layer of political tension, many are experiencing feelings of hopelessness that pandemic circumstances only magnify.
According to a nationwide survey by researchers from Rutgers and Harvard, more than one-third of young adults in the U.S. report having thoughts of hopelessness, while nearly half show symptoms of depression.
These numbers are ten times higher than what was exhibited in the general population before the COVID-19 pandemic, say researchers.
Pandemic stress is also impacting younger children. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports mental health visits have spiked for young children and adolescents since the pandemic started.
The Tech Connection
A 2016 Time cover story offers critical insight into why anxiety and depression have continued to rise among young people and the role technology plays in that equation.
Time writer Susanna Schrobsdorff describes the crisis this way: “They are the post-9/11 generation, raised in an era of economic and national insecurity. They’ve never known a time when terrorism and school shootings weren’t the norm. They grew up watching their parents weather a severe recession, and, perhaps most important, they hit puberty at a time when technology and social media were transforming society.”
Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury, added that technology is the primary driver feeding young people’s anxiety and depression. “It’s that they’re in a cauldron of stimulus they can’t get away from, or don’t want to get away from, or don’t know how to get away from.”
Steve Schneider, a high school counselor, likened the constant pressure many teens feel from their phones to a scab that’s constantly being picked. “At no point do you get to remove yourself from it and get perspective.”
Headline Stress Disorder
Even with a vaccine signaling an end in sight to a degree of our stress, other tensions are proving to be relentless, causing what some doctors are calling “headline stress disorder,” a condition in which non-stop news cycles trigger intense feelings of worry and helplessness.
So how can we help our kids bear up under the weight of it all?
Staying especially connected to one another during this time and alert to the signs of emotional distress is one way parents can help kids balance their digital and mental health. Here are a few other ways to consider.
7 Ways to Build Your Family’s Digital, Mental Health
- Prioritize digital health. Kids need help with limits, especially when school schedules, team sports, and gatherings are in flux. Pay attention to your child’s social media use — how much and what kind — and consider establishing time limits and filtering the content that’s flowing across their screens.
- Pay attention to online friend groups. Kids connect with new people online all the time through gaming platforms, group chats, and apps. With school schedules in limbo, in-person friend groups can easily form online and expose your child to a number of online risks.
- Follow the ‘Three Rs.’ Routine (make a schedule and stick to it); Relationship (go above and beyond to connect 1-1); and Reassurance (remind kids they are safe and that everything is going to be okay — quash rumors).
- Make time to talk. Not all signs of emotional distress will be outward; some will be subtle, and some, even non-existent. That’s why it’s essential to consistently take the time to assess how your kids are doing.
- Help process distressing events. Getting to the root of a child’s anxiety often means helping them identify the deeper fears and “what ifs” and them learn to distinguish between what they can and cannot control.
- Practice focusing on facts. A big part of #5 is helping kids understand the facts (quash rumors) about alarming events or conditions is one way to help them feel more in control of what’s happening around them. This includes coaching them in critical thinking and media literacy skills.
- Model & encourage healthy habits. Physical health is intertwined with mental health. Especially during times of crisis, encourage and model good habits like exercising, eating well, meditation and deep breathing, and getting enough sleep.
The silent storms beneath this pandemic will continue to surface and teach us for years to come. Until then, be encouraged that no one has the “what to do,” figured out or the parental superpower to control the uncontrollable. We’re all in this together and, together, hopefully soon, we’ll be enjoying the light of better days.
Family Mental Health Resources
For resources related to mental health, suicide prevention, crisis intervention, and COVID-19, visit the Pandemic Crisis Services Response Coalition. If you or a family member is in immediate crisis, visit the emergency room or call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
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