A clinical psychologist shares tips to promote emotional and digital well-being in the age of social media and screens.
When used responsibly, technology can be a great tool. It can connect us with others, help us find answers to our questions, and even improve productivity. As rates of depression in teenagers rise, many wonders if social media and screens negatively affect our children.
Nicholas J. Westers Psy.D. ABPP is a clinical psychologist and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. He says the answer to this question is more complex than yes or no. He explains that because we want to know the truth, it is easy to attribute feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and anxiety to teens’ increased use of technology. “But there’s usually more than one cause.”
Dr. Westers shares tips on how to encourage healthy digital habits.
In an age of connectivity, loneliness is on the rise.
Cigna, a health insurer, conducted a 2018 study on adults. The results showed that loneliness is an “epidemic” in the U.S. and that younger adults are more isolated and have worse health than older adults.
We all know that anxiety and depression can harm mental and physical health. People are often surprised that loneliness can have a similar effect. According to, loneliness can have the same effect on mortality as 15 cigarettes smoked each day.
Dr. Westers says that people are wired to connect. Without connection, we may feel lonely. This can lead to depression and even premature death.
Is technology to blame? Dr. Westers does not want to blame one thing. Maintaining good communication and teaching your children healthy tech habits is important, rather than banning technology.
Teach digital health to improve mental health.
Dr. Westers explains that technology has many benefits, but how it is used can make a difference.
He says social media can be a great tool for connecting with others or discovering and learning new things. “But when we are a passive audience, newsfeeds and posts can cause negative feelings such as loneliness and depression.”
Dr. Westers suggests that children learn three aspects of digital health to help them avoid feeling lonely, stressed, or anxious.
Teenagers who spend more than two hours a day using technology are more likely to feel depressed, anxious, or lonely. Setting limits and boundaries on technology is one way to help children develop a healthy relationship with it.
Dr. Westers acknowledges that it can be difficult for parents to lead by example. If the rule is that phones are not allowed at dinner, parents should also follow the rule. Otherwise, teens might not respect it.
Dr. Westers suggests that parents and teens work together to set rules. He says that while parents have the final word, teens are more likely to follow the rules if they are developed with their parents.
Dr. Westers recommends parents discuss with their teens the following rules:
Set “no-phone” times.
This includes dinnertime, before and after bedtime, for many families. Balance technology with non-technical activities. This does not include schoolwork but should include video games, TV, and phone time.
Have a tech-free family day.
Choose a weekday that is convenient for you and your family, then put away the phones for 24 hours. This can help break the tech addiction and foster creativity and connections.
Remove technology from the bedroom.
Studies have shown that technology disrupts sleep. Keep phones, laptops, tablets, and TVs away from bedrooms. This will promote better sleep and reduce feelings of anxiety and sadness.
Dr. Westers says that parents should teach their children to be polite, to say please and thank you, and to have basic manners in person. The same thing should be done for online behavior.
Digital etiquette helps children recognize and avoid cyberbullying and can also help them know what to do if it happens to their friends. Sarcasm, for example, can be misinterpreted and construed as cyberbullying online. Sarcasm does not usually go over well with young people because it lacks the tone, volume, and expressions they often use when communicating online or via text. As an example of digital etiquette, teach your child how to use sarcasm with caution or even not at all.
Not every comment, message, or text needs a reply – not at all, and not when you are angry. Parents can teach their children to practice this skill of not responding immediately.
Using good digital etiquette will help your child to maintain healthy relationships with others, both in person and online. This can reduce the chances of them feeling lonely and rejected.
Dr. Westers says that talking about safety online is another important aspect of digital healthcare. No matter how old your child or teenager is, they can still make decisions that put them in dangerous situations.
It is important to set some ground rules regarding online behavior. These include not meeting someone in person that you met online, never sharing personal information with anyone, and only allowing children access sites they are permitted. Create a plugin tag View more guidelines for online security.
Establish open communication for emotional health.
Open communication is one of the best ways parents can encourage mental health. Dr. Westers urges parents to create open lines of communication by using these tips.
Check back often
Asking about your child’s day during dinner or setting up a coffee date at the weekend can help you connect with them. Parents can learn more about their child or teen by spending time together. It also shows the child that they are always available for a chat.
You can respond by saying, “I’m sorry that you feel this way.” How can I help? You can’t dismiss your feelings by saying, “You have many friends.” You shouldn’t be lonely.
Dr. Westers reminds all parents that loneliness is an emotion we have all experienced occasionally. You can feel lonely even if others surround you. Working together with your child to create a plan to help them feel better is a good idea. It could be an activity you both can do, a visit from a family or friend, or even a simple activity.
If you are worried about your child, get help.
Dr. Westers states that “few people seek mental health help.” “About 1 in 5 children and adolescents suffer from depression, yet more than half go untreated. Not everyone who suffers from anxiety disorders gets treatment or adheres to it. Treatment is crucial because it can help improve outcomes both now and in the future.
Dr. Westers warns parents not to worry if their child is sad, lonely, or depressed.
He says that adolescents can be moody, and parents may not know whether their feelings are normal or if they should be concerned. Parents should listen to their gut instincts and seek professional help if they are concerned. A psychologist can help you see the big picture and determine if your child is experiencing normal emotions or something more serious.