Voices: How to stop technology harming your child’s mental health

Children today have never been offline. Almost from the womb – that first, grainy ultrasound image posted on social media – Generation Alpha and younger Gen Z-ers have had a digital footprint, and been immersed in a world of constant digital connection. My own son, born in the year that the first iPhone came out (2007), has never known a life where phones were not connected to the internet and carried around in one’s pocket.

The news that tech bosses could face jail under the Online Safety Bill if they fail to protect children from harmful content is one step on the road to understanding that young people today inhabit an online world unrecognisable from anything we grew up with. The terrible death of Molly Russell – the teenager who took her own life after viewing suicide and self-harm content online – means we can never forget our responsibility to children and their digital wellbeing.

Today’s young people are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis. Hospital referrals for children with serious mental health problems have shot up 39 per cent in one year, according to NHS data analysed by PA. Admissions for eating disorders have soared by 82 per cent.

Our children are living through the fastest technological revolution in history, in a world scarred by the global pandemic, all while facing down the barrel of a climate crisis. We cannot find solutions for mental ill health, if we do not recognise the complexity of the psychological stressors facing Gen Z and Generation Alpha today.

I’ve been a counsellor in the NHS for 12 years. As a mental health professional and a parent, I would be foolish not to acknowledge the many connections between today’s overwhelmingly online culture and mental health problems.

While technology (used wisely and with limits) can be a force for good, there’s no avoiding the fact that today’s children can watch a man being murdered on Instagram (the terrible murder of George Floyd was recorded and shared online) or view self-harm and suicide content that can sometimes risk glamorising mental illness. However, it is equally important that we don’t use technology as a scapegoat for every problem that children encounter.

Our best way forward is to accept that technology – so embedded in every facet of our culture – is not something we can cut from our children’s lives in any real way. However, there are simple solutions we can use to integrate tech into our lives in a way that alleviates some of the issues that too much time spent online can cause, including loneliness. In a study of children aged between 11 and 18 conducted by the Lily Jo Project, a quarter of participants agreed that social media made them feel lonely.

Here are some of the top tips I’ve developed as a mental health professional, to set healthy boundaries for children when it comes to technology:

First of all, be kind to yourself. As parents and caregivers living with work stresses, childcare pressures and in the aftermath of a global pandemic, it can often feel impossible to start setting limits when technology is so perennial in life today. One thing that can really help is setting clear device deadlines. When children are informed about when they have to disconnect from an enjoyable online activity – like playing games online with friends – it helps ease the transition from online to offline, making the experience less jarring for them.

I would also recommend creating phone-free zones – physical spaces in your home where phone usage is not allowed, for example, in the bedrooms or bathrooms. The benefit of having the children’s bedrooms as a phone-free zone is that we know looking at a phone right before bed can affect our sleep cycles.

It’s also really important to find offline time together, focusing on “IRL” (in real life) connections, as well as URL ones! Carve out device-free time when you and your family can all give each other attention. Without devices, you may initially find that it can be hard to keep a conversation going, especially if everyone is tired from a hard day and some of your group are surly teenagers, but it’s worth persevering.

You can try different techniques; for example, creating “gratitude lists” at dinner time, where you go around the table, each of you saying something that you are grateful for. If dinner times do not work for you as a family, perhaps you can find another time to prioritise non-screen socialising with your child. Offline together time is not about healthy boundaries only for our children; it is also about healthy boundaries for us. We need to demonstrate to our children that we can honour their conversations by giving them our full, undivided attention.

Lily-Jo is a mental health activist and founder of the Lily Jo Project. Her recent book, Talking to Children About Mental Health, is available to purchase here