Living: The wired generation

Technology, social media and the adolescent years can be a lethal combination.

To be or not to be, that’s the question (sic Shakespeare). This is relevant even today when it comes to young people, technology and their social media presence.

Developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson describes the adolescent years as ‘identity v/s role confusion’. These key formative years require careful moulding by responsible adults, parents or teachers. A supportive family and peer group are vital for a young person attempting to make sense of the world.

Children today are well-travelled. They have easy access to technology, the internet and its accompanying dangers. Their exposure to the outside world is immense. Do parents need to fear this and protect their children more? Or is it better to open up their worlds early? How can parents be more aware of the child’s inevitable exposure to help them navigate the confusion? How can a parent deal with the precocious child?

How can a young person’s confidence and identity be strengthened during the key stage of adolescence? How can youngsters be empowered to balance the pros and cons of technology? How can we help them stay safe, make the right choices and expand their minds?

Tough talk

In the digital era, there are more questions than answers. Every child and family is unique and there are no blanket guidelines or rules. But when it comes to our day-to-day lives, technology rules. Let us consider some of the common parental concerns around technology.

“My child spends too much time on the internet”; “My kids are addicted to social media or gaming”. These are common complaints that I hear as a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Since the turn of the millennium, easy access to the internet has highlighted multiple disturbing social maladies. Cyberbullying, grooming and abuse are some of the concerning trends on social media platforms. Early puberty, sexual awareness, the potential for promiscuity and early sexual experimentation can affect mental health and change the course of a child’s life.

In addition, pre-teens and teens have easy exposure to graphics, images, inappropriate content, games and apps with violence and disturbing graphics or ads.

Sexual awareness/knowledge and experimentation happen at a younger age (with the onset of puberty) with the current generation. These experiences can trigger depression, anxiety, heartbreak and other long-term stress-related conditions.

Images of photoshopped, unnaturally skinny role models are everywhere. They have set impossibly high standards for developing girls and contributed to body image issues and eating disorders. The cases of self-harming by cutting or overdosing in a bid to manage raw emotional pain is increasing. This disturbing method of coping is increasing through unregulated and unmonitored chat rooms and forums.

Young people are being coerced/enticed into self-harming through dangerous websites. With adolescents having easier access to alcohol, drugs and money, other concerning methods of coping with stress or to gain social acceptance are emerging.

The number of reconstituted families and divorced or single-parent families is on the rise. Alteration in familiar family structures and communication can alienate children, make them feel lonely and contribute to mental illness at a young age.

None of the above conditions has a pre-ordained outcome in reality and that is the crux of managing technology better. An acknowledgement and acceptance that technology (along with its positives and negatives) is here to stay is a crucial first step. This means that we have to work with the availability of technology, not against it. But how?

Be present: Keep access to the internet in the family area, especially for younger children. Use it as a bonding tool. Surf the internet with your child for information on animals, music etc. Make them curious about nature, our environment and the world we live in. Follow it up with a trip to a park or a nature reserve so they get to experience wildlife, the effects of climate change and the great outdoors with better knowledge gleaned from the internet.

Enforce a common rule for the whole family: What is soup for the goose is soup for the gander (and their offspring). The internet has to be switched off at a certain time and all gadgets should be put away by all. Agree on rules and adhere to them consistently.

Use diversion tactics: Music-based emotional regulatory techniques like Creative Arts for Processing Emotions can be used to support bonding within the family and also help youngsters to stay motivated, disciplined and manage their emotions more effectively. A child’s interest in music, art, reading and sport needs to be nurtured and supported carefully alongside their academics.

Autonomy, not freedom: Communicate with your child. Exercising autonomy involves making an informed choice with knowledge of options. Freedom has a broader definition and does not necessarily conform with taking on responsibility for their actions and choices.

All eyes & ears: Agree on rules and supervise children to ensure agreements and rules around technology are being followed. Get to know your child, their friends, their surfing habits, their usual hangouts and their social media activity better.

Understand technology & social media: If you are on social media, show your children ways in which they can stay safe and educate them about potential dangers. Parents should be parents and not friends with their children in real life to ensure boundaries are set and followed. But on social media, being accepted as their friend is helpful. For younger pre-teens on the threshold of adolescence, discuss the importance of having access to their passwords to support them when needed. Explain that this is not to interfere with their privacy by snooping. This circumvents the child’s attempts to have secret accounts and passwords to be accepted by their peers.

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, the number of cyberbullying, harassment, child grooming, child abuse, eating disorder and self-harming websites and chat rooms, precocious exposure to sexual content I hear about is staggering. New sites and games emerge every day and it is not possible to keep up. In many cases, parents are not aware of their child’s internet use until it is too late.

Mental & physical illness: Auto-immune conditions (thyroid problems, eczema, colitis etc), hormonal imbalance disorders (polycystic ovaries, irregular and heavy periods) and lifestyle diseases (diabetes) are linked with chronic stress and mental illness. Educate your children about the importance of mental health and emotional well-being.

Parental web controls and supervision have limits to what can be supervised. It is more important to have a consistent communication with your child, geared around mutual trust and support. A vital message for your child to hear is, “whatever happens, we are there for you and will try our best to support you but we need to be able to trust you and know that you have been completely honest with us”.

Unfortunately, despite one’s best efforts as a parent, traumatic things do happen. In these cases, it is important for parents not to pull themselves down with guilt, self-blame or blaming the child. Rather, focus your energies on staying strong and supporting your vulnerable child and each other whole-heartedly. Enable positive conversations and explore practical strategies for staying safe in the future.

When in doubt or if you have any concerns about your child’s use of technology, behaviour or mental health, seek the help of a trained mental health professional with specialised training and expertise with children, young people and families. 

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Living: The wired generation

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