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Distanced but still Social: Youth and Digital Media during COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, child and adolescent use of digital media increased at unprecedented rates. In addition to attending classes through webcams, youth relied on digital media to socialize with peers, engage in social activism, play games, learn new skills, and interact with health care providers. This increased use has many parents wondering: Are my children spending too much time online? Is my child becoming anxious or depressed because of their online interactions? What can I do as a parent to make navigating digital media safer for my child? Recent studies conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic seek to address these concerns and provide recommendations for parents moving forward

 

The transition to remote learning meant that other, non-academic, activities also moved online. Unable to see each other safely in-person, many teens met with friends over video calls, online chat rooms, and social media sites. Prior to 2020, prolonged use of these online platforms was associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression, while spending more time with friends in-person typically was associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression. Research suggested young people, who already tend to compare themselves to others, began thinking their friends online had happier lives than them (Chou & Edge, 2012).

Lockdowns during the early months of the pandemic, however, disrupted in-person “hanging out,” leading parents and educators to worry about what prolonged online-only interactions without subsequent in-person meetings would do to teen mental health. To investigate how the pandemic changed young people’s experience online, Common Sense Media (Rideout et al., 2021) surveyed young adults (aged 14-22) from 2018 and 2020 about their online activity and mental health. At the time of the 2020 survey, many schools in the United States were still in remote-learning protocols, and vaccines had not yet been made available to the public.

The Common Sense Media report found that when compared to 2018, young people in 2020 reported higher levels of anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms with rates being higher among those who reported having family members who contracted the COVID-19 virus. Twice as many Hispanic/Latinx and Black youth reported that they or someone in their family had gotten ill with the virus. Young adults who identify as LGBTQ+ reported being moderately or severely depressed at twice the rate as their peers. 14- to 17-year-olds reported significantly higher rates of encountering racist, sexist, and homophobic content on social media. Additionally, social, and political events in the summer and fall of 2020 likely contributed to heightened levels of anxiety and online activity. 

While this report does suggest that youth are using digital media at higher rates than in 2018, encountering more hate speech, and reporting higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression – it’s not clear that time spent online is causing these symptoms. One recent study looked at possible mechanisms linking increased rates of social media use with stress, anxiety, and depression. Ruggieri and colleagues (2021) investigated online social comparisons in young adults before a COVID-19 lockdown, two weeks into lockdown, and one month into lockdown. The lockdowns in Italy (where the study was done) were particularly strict with residents only allowed to leave their house to buy food or medicine. Consistent with previous findings (Chou & Edge, 2012) online social comparisons prior to lockdown were associated with higher rates of anxiety, loneliness, stress, and depression. However, engaging in social comparisons online during lockdown predicted lower rates of stress, anxiety, and loneliness. These findings suggest that during the pandemic, online engagement in social media sites may have served a protective role – buffering against the otherwise negative experiences of a pandemic lockdown.

The rate at which young people use digital media has indeed increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the way young people interact with each other online has also changed. Parents of young people should be aware of the benefits and potential harms faced online. Autonomy Supportive Parenting is a practice that motivates children to engage in self-regulation behaviors on their own, rather than behaving according to the demands and control of others. For example, a child may do their chores in order to get a reward or avoid punishment, or a child may do their chores because they understand that everyone in the household helps out and shares the responsibility of chores. The former pattern of behavior often results in response to controlling parenting, the latter from autonomy-supportive behavior. Similar to how children and adolescents regulate their behavior at home and at school, they also engage in self-regulation online. Given how ubiquitous the online landscape has become in daily lives – scaffolding how young people interact with digital media can allow them to become more autonomous and safer online. For example, if your teen wants to start their own YouTube channel come up with a plan for what kind of content they plan on posting, read through comments with them and ask them how those comments make them feel, and consider setting up a family link account to better inform your actions. The goal isn’t to create a very restrictive environment where teens feel uncomfortable expressing themselves rather, the goal is to have enough information about what your teen is doing online to have safe and constructive conversations with them about online engagement.

The conversation about healthy social media use and engagement with digital media starts at an early age. As children get older and take on more responsibilities, parent strategies and scaffolding change. The same restrictions and supports given to a 6-year-old may not be appropriate for a 15-year-old. To get started on age-specific guides and recommendations for children from preschool age to teens and young adults visit Common Sense Media. There you will also find useful guides for parents that go beyond the movie and video game age recommendations and summarize exactly what kind of content your child is consuming in a video game, app, tv show, or movie.

About the Author:

Andrei SemenovDr. Andrei Semenov is a developmental psychologist and currently a NIMH post-doctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development. He received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Minnesota in 2021. Andrei received his B.A. from the University of Colorado in 2013.

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