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Teens and Digital Technology During the Pandemic

  • August 06, 2020
  • Anxiety, Depression, Patients and Families

A new report from Common Sense, Tweens, Teens, Tech, and Mental Health: Coming of Age in an Increasingly Digital, Uncertain, and Unequal World, addresses the connections between teens’ use of digital technology and mental health. It acknowledges the critical importance of digital connection for teens, especially during the pandemic, and provides guidance on identifying youth who might be at risk for potential harmful effects of social media use.

In the current environment, digital technology is the connection and lifeline for many teens. “Conversations around screen time are changing as adolescents have been quickly moved online to meet all of their educational and social needs,” the Common Sense report notes. The focus is more on how rather than how much digital technology is being used.

While some previous research has pointed to a potential connection between social media and screen time and mental health problems, Common Sense finds that overall, the research is mixed and inconclusive. And it does not indicate whether social media use is a cause of mental health problems, a symptom or both.

The new report identifies potential benefits and risks of digital technology for different groups of youth. For example, young teens who have experienced victimization or bullying offline may be particularly vulnerable in online spaces. On the other hand, some teens who are marginalized offline, such as LGBTQ teens, may find supportive communities online.

Another concern is that while online resources and digital media “can and should be a social safety net right now,” many of the most vulnerable do not have equal access—lacking access to appropriate devices or reliable internet access.

The report also includes a series of essays from leading experts that highlight issues within specific groups of teens. Tiera Chanté Tanksley, Ph.D., with U.C. Irvine Connected Learning Lab, writes an essay on how Black girls and young women are coping with the additional issues they face amid the Black Lives Movement and the protests for racial justice (Finding Peace During the Protests: Digital Wellness Tools for Black Girl Activists). Tanksley identifies three types of online wellness activities Black girls use to cope with the stress and fatigue of witnessing racial violence on social media:

  • Experiencing Black joy and laughter by participating in digital spaces focused on joy, art, and laughter (such as Black Twitter, an online subculture of primarily Black users on Twitter focused on issues of interest to the Black communities),
  • Unplugging, taking a social media break and engaging in restful or restorative activities.
  • Finding sources of communal coping and connecting online with race-conscious mental health resources online (such as Therapy for Black Girls).

Psychotherapist Lina Acosta Sandaal, LMFT, writes about cultural conflict and other issues of concern for many Latinx families in The Burdens of the Latinx Family. For example, there may be conflicts between Latinx culture and the dominant “American” culture teens are growing up in. Some families may avoid mental health care services because of a lack of information and lack of practitioners knowledgeable in their culture and language.

If you would like to learn more, Common Sense is hosting free virtual events:

  • Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears About Technology Shape Children's Lives Wednesday, Aug. 12, 10:00 a.m. PT / 1:00 p.m. ET – Register
  • Mental Health: Building a Digital Ecosystem that Supports Kids and Families, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 10:00 a.m. PT / 1:00 p.m. ET – Register


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