Inside the Children’s Mental Health Crisis: Understanding Trigger Factors & What You Can Do

Children’s mental health has become an increasingly critical concern for parents and caregivers. Between social media, online content, and video games, a new era has emerged that presents both opportunities and challenges for the younger generation. From the aftermath of COVID-19 isolation to the nuanced patterns of technology use, parents need practical strategies to help their children strike a healthy balance between the digital and real world.

What Are the Most Significant Factors Contributing to the Current State of Children’s Mental Health?

  • The COVID-19 Pandemic: The rates of mental health struggles in children and adolescents have been increasing over the last 10-12 years, further worsened by the pandemic. 
  • Social Media: Social media and how it fosters a lack of genuine human connection appear to be one the most significant factors contributing to children’s mental health issues.
  • Social Isolation: The contrast between connection and social isolation is resulting in increased anxiety, depression, and a further downward spiral in mental health.
  • Increased Traumatic Events: In addition, the current generation is growing up in a time of increased traumas with rising incidents of mass violence, natural disasters, and financial recessions.
  • Structural Factors: Structural factors that are impacting today’s youth, such as poverty, homelessness, family displacement, and lack of healthcare access.

In the Aftermath of COVID-19, What Specific Mental Health Challenges Are Children Facing?

  • Increases in Depression & Anxiety: The aftermath of COVID-19 has seen a significant increase in depression and anxiety among children.  Many children lost a caregiver, witnessed or were victims of family violence, and experienced not only a disruption in connections but also education and other activities. 
  • Self-Injurous Behavior: Suicide rates, a leading cause of death among ages 15-24, are rising with exponential increases in children under the age of 10.

What Can Parents Do?

Parents can provide support by helping their children to maintain a balance between life activities, checking in regularly, and fostering open communication.

It is vital for parents to understand their child’s individual struggles, prioritize in-person relationships, support while also challenging their child, and refrain from immediate problem-solving without a full understanding of the issue at hand.

Are There Identifiable Patterns in Technology Use That May Indicate a Child is Experiencing a Mental Health Crisis?

Childhood and adolescence is a pivotal time of brain development.  It is a period of increased impulsivity and risk-taking, development of identity and self-worth, and first presentation of mental health disorders. 

Parents should be critical observers of their child’s mood before and after using technology to observe for changes in behavior, affect, and relating with others.

Indicators of a youth mental health crisis include decreased life satisfaction, heightened need for approval and acceptance (beyond normal adolescent development), increased technology usage, withdrawal from real-life activities, mood alterations, such as heightened irritability, and changes to appetite and sleep patterns. 

How Do Different Forms of Media, Such as Video Games or Online Content, Contribute to or Alleviate Mental Health Challenges in Children?

Digital media has the potential for both positive and negative impacts on children’s mental health. The impact of different forms of media is highly individualized, dependent on how a child perceives and is impacted by the content. 

Social media and other networking platforms can increase connection and support, thus improving mental health.  The platforms provide marginalized groups, such as racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities, with a place to find social support often lacking in their local communities. 

Online bullying, discrimination, exposure to violence, body shaming, and predatory behavior contribute to elevated levels of depression, anxiety, and trauma.

Parents can capitalize on the positive impacts with open communication, close observation and monitoring of digital media use and platforms, and frequent fact-checking. 

What Role Do Peer Interactions on Social Media Play in Children’s Mental Health?

Adolescence is a time of self-discovery and identity development with heightened sensitivities to acceptance and approval.  Therefore, peer interactions have the potential for both positive and negative impacts. 

As previously discussed, social media can provide a platform for connection and acceptance for many marginalized groups. However, social media can also result in increased bullying, discrimination, heightened comparisons, and peer pressure.

Parents should encourage open communication with their children, support their children in creating (and defining) healthy online connections, and address potential issues such as cyberbullying and adult predatory behavior. 

How Can Parents Help Their Children Find a Healthy Balance Between Online and Offline Activities?

Parents should ensure age-appropriate technology use that is utilized for brain, talent, and skill development. The use of digital media is a fixture in our society, and with a healthy balance and limitation of use to an as-needed basis, families can reap the many positive benefits digital media can offer. 

Encourage routine activities with friends or family, prioritize exercise and good sleep, be a good digital role model, and understand and engage in your child’s interests.

What Impact Does Excessive Screen Time Have on Sleep Quality and Duration?

Excessive screen time negatively impacts sleep quality and duration. Poor sleep has been shown to negatively alter brain development, worsen executive functioning, and increase symptoms of depression and suicide.

To reinforce healthy sleep habits, parents can help their child establish a bedtime routine, encourage relaxation activities like yoga and deep breathing, and limit the presence of phones, iPads, and TVs in the child’s room at least 60 minutes prior to bedtime. 

Are There Specific Age Groups More Susceptible to Mental Health Challenges Related to Technology?

Each age group is susceptible to different challenges depending on their developmental stage. 

For instance, ages 11-13 are mainly influenced by a desire to identify with others and exhibit a group mentality.

To learn more about the different age groups, visit the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Screen Media Resource Center.

How Can Parents Differentiate Between Typical Teenage Behavior and Signs of a More Serious Mental Health Issue Exacerbated by Technology Use?

Adolescence is a tumultuous time for all teens and their parents, even in the absence of mental health struggles. Signs of a developing or worsening issue will depend on each child’s strengths, vulnerabilities, culture, and socioeconomic factors. 

Due to the individualized effects and response to technology use, it is critical for parents to have a sound understanding of their child’s baseline mood and behaviors. 

When a child demonstrates a drastic change or a slow decompensation that builds over time of their baseline, a parent should be altered to a developing issue and seek professional guidance. 

What Resources Are Available for Parents to Educate Themselves About the Potential Risks and Benefits of Technology on Their Children’s Mental Health?

Parents can access resources like ACCAP (Addiction Child & Adolescent Psychology) to educate themselves about the potential risks and benefits of technology on their children’s mental health.

Children and Screens, Institute of Digital Media and Child Development provides parents with extensive information on digital media’s impact on child development and parenting tip sheets.

What Strategies Can Parents Use to Encourage Physical Activity to Counteract the Sedentary Effects of Screen Time?

Parents can promote physical activity by planning family activities involving physical movement such as going on a walk or learning a new sport together, and encourage their child’s off-line interests.

Family outings that incorporate nature and outdoors, such as gardening, rock collecting, bird watching, and many others, also promote time disconnected from digital media and mental well-being. 

Closing Advice for Parents

It’s challenging to parent in a digital age. By maintaining open communication, being observant of mood changes, and embracing a supportive network, parents can help their children navigate the digital landscape. Encouraging your children to find a balance between online and offline will help them cope with technology-related stressors. As technology continues to evolve, parents must also adapt to ensure the mental well-being of their children. 

If you suspect your child is struggling with their mental health, reach out to our clinician team to talk in more detail.

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Author

  • Residential Clinical Operations Director - Kimberly Young has a diverse work experience in the healthcare field. Kimberly started her career at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health in 2010 as a Registered Nurse and later became a Charge Nurse. In 2017, she joined the same organization as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. Kimberly then moved to Hillside, Inc in 2018, where she held multiple positions including Assistant Medical Director, Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, and Residential Clinical Operations Director. Kimberly has a strong background in mental health and clinical operations. Kimberly Young is currently pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) at Baylor University, specializing in Executive Nurse Leadership. Kimberly started their DNP program in 2022 and is expected to graduate in 2023. Prior to her doctoral studies, Kimberly completed a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree from the Georgia State School of Nursing and Health Professions. Kimberly pursued this degree from 2014 to 2016, focusing on Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing Practitioner. Furthermore, Kimberly obtained her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree from the same institution, the Georgia State School of Nursing and Health Professions. Kimberly attended the school from 2008 to 2010, specializing in Nursing.