The dark side of kids’ digital devices and how to beat it


When Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told the European Parliament in November that more needed to be done to prevent harm online, the welfare of children was among her concerns.

Pointing out the dangers of Instagram’s algorithms, such as posts about healthy foods that link to others that could encourage eating disorders, Haugen later told the FT that “kids are dying because of these things”.

Time spent on devices such as smartphones has increased during the Covid-19 shutdowns, raising concerns about young people’s use of technology, particularly the negative impact of screen time on well -adolescent mental being. In 2019, a study from the University of Oxford failed to find a link, noting: “There is still little consensus as to whether and, if so, how on-screen engagement digital affects psychological well-being”.

However, some experts say the real risks come not from screen time, but from the content and the types of activity it encourages. “If you’re using an iPad to do yoga for 20 minutes, it’s very different from scrolling through pictures of self-harm,” says Amy Orben, co-author of the Oxford study and researcher at the University of Cambridge.

Daniel Kardefelt-Winther of the United Nations Children’s Fund agrees. “If you look at the specific experiences of children in the digital environment, that’s where you can find impacts on mental health,” says Kardefelt-Winther, who leads Unicef’s research program on children’s mental health. children and digital technologies.

Frances Haugen © Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Social media exacerbates many of the problems. For young people, comparing themselves to peers or celebrities can contribute to increased stress and lowered self-esteem. In a study by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), young people in the UK said that using four of the five most used social media platforms made their feelings of anxiety worse. “People only show their best side on social media,” says Merike Sisask, professor of social health at the University of Tallinn in Estonia. “It can be stressful for children.”

To counter this, the RSPH recommends changes to social media platforms, including pop-up warning messages during heavy social media use, disclosures about when photos of people have been digitally manipulated, and teaching how to safe social media in schools.

Regulators are starting to act. In the UK, the Age Appropriate Design Code prevents companies from tracking the location of children, personalizing content or advertising for them, and creating behavioral incentives such as default autoplay on videos. But some researchers believe that psychologically harmful online experiences require a more hybrid approach because they are linked to abuse occurring in the physical world.

Cyberbullying is one example. Online, this type of abuse can be perpetrated more easily. “The online world prolongs existing crimes or negative experiences,” says Kardefelt-Winther, who argues that cyberbullying can be more emotionally damaging than its offline equivalent. “You don’t have a safe space,” he says. “You can be at home on your phone and the bully can reach you.”

Daniel Kardefelt-Winther

Daniel Kardefelt-Winther

Cases of cyberattack have increased as the pandemic has boosted online learning. According to US and Israel-based L1ght, which uses artificial intelligence to detect and filter toxic online content away from children, hate between young people in online chats increased by 70% during the shutdowns.

However, if digital technologies pose risks to the mental health of young people, they could also offer solutions. Digital phenotyping, for example, is a new technique for tracking mental illness symptoms and behaviors online in real time. Technology also offers the possibility of expanding access to mental health services in developing countries and low-income communities.

Digital interventions don’t need to be sophisticated either. “People first think it’s a fancy app that you need a smartphone to download, when we often talk about low tech, which is having a phone that connects you to a therapist “, explains Pamela Collins, professor of psychiatry and behavior. sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“For some of the most neglected communities [in the US], simply taking public transportation to find a mental health care provider can take a few hours. It’s no different in many countries where you have few providers and they’re not evenly spread across the population.

Collins says technology can help promote adolescent mental health in a number of ways, “from telepsychiatry or training people on a Zoom platform, to digital phenotyping, to people going to a website to track cognitive-behavioral therapy”. But she adds that poor infrastructure in low-income areas hampers access. “To have a full Zoom session, you [need] a data plan and adequate bandwidth,” she says.

Digital intervention designs need to take this into account, says Rebecca Braun, who leads the Youth Tech Health Initiative at ETR, a California-based nonprofit. The initiative uses technology to promote the health of young people in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the United States. “The first step, whether in the Bay Area or in Honduras, is to understand what is going on in the lives of young people – how they use technology, if they have access to the Internet and what is important to them in terms of privacy and security,” she says. . To improve safety and security, many YTH Initiative projects allow users to create avatars for themselves, using any name, gender-neutral identity, and choosing race and ethnicity.

In Estonia, where 10-20% of young people suffer from mental health problems and where the suicide rate for this age group is above the EU average, the impact of mobile apps is being assessed . To test acceptance among young people, four apps – dealing with self-harm, depression, suicidal thoughts and sleeping habits – have been developed by AppsTerv, an Estonian project which, with funding from Norway, aims increase access to mental health services. “Young people loved these interventions,” says Sisask of Tallinn University, who worked on the project. “We received feedback from mental health professionals that they were using the apps between face-to-face sessions.”

Psychotherapist providing remote patient support via video call.  Female psychologist conducting online therapy session with her patient on laptop
Online therapy is helpful, but poor digital infrastructure can hinder access © Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

However, most apps are developed by private companies, rather than non-profit groups or publicly funded companies. That’s a worry for Rachana Parikh, senior program manager at the India office of Path, a Seattle-based nonprofit health group. “In India, they come from foreign start-ups and largely target English-speaking audiences who can pay to access them,” she says. “It will not solve the problems of the majority of the country.”

Additionally, it is unclear which digital mental health interventions are effective for young people. A recent study in the United States by Columbia Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the consultancy firm Spark Street Advisors found mixed evidence on the effectiveness of therapeutic video games, mobile apps and dating sites. social networks.

What’s more, says Nina Schwalbe, adjunct assistant professor of population and family health at Mailman, digital mental health interventions are part of a commercial-driven market that is subject to little oversight or regulation. She cites the example of a child using a chatbot to discuss suicidal feelings. “How does it become a recommendation? What type of data is collected and how does this affect future insurability? ” she says. “It’s the Wild West out there.”

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