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Kids, Mental Health & the Internet

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More time online is the new norm, but it doesn’t have to take a toll on the mental health of your kiddos. Karla Salem is a certified social worker from Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, SD, and laid out some helpful tips to keep the internet a positive and educational space.   

  • The internet affects your child’s self-esteem the same way it affects yours.  
  • Introduce the internet gradually with parameters based on your child’s maturity and trust level.   
  • Model good behavior by putting your phone away during family time.   
  • Think about how your teens view screen time. Is it a reward or a punishment?  
  • Use the internet for education – not just entertainment.  

Read more of Karla Salem’s tips below about promoting a positive online experience.   

Kids, Mental Health & the Internet

We depend on it for work, school, entertainment and connections with others. The internet has transformed our lives and kept us afloat during a global pandemic. And while it is an incredible resource, too much time glued to devices – without online safety rules – can take a toll on the mental health of kids, teens and even adults.    

 “People are spending so much time online that it becomes so convenient and so easy, and it’s distracting them from in-person relationships,” explained Karla Salem, a clinical social worker at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, SD. “But like all habits that developed over COVID, now is a really good time to rethink them and say, ‘What do you want to go on with, and what would you like to change.’”   

Self-esteem and online bullying   

Social media keeps us connected, informed and gives us a place to express ourselves – reaching people on the other side of the globe. However, kids’ online safety can be compromised when used without moderation or appropriate online safety rules.    

“It’s so easy to do more bullying,” said Salem. “Kids get online, and they start thinking about themselves in a less-than-great way or start making comparisons. If you want to know what’s wrong and how it affects your kids’ self-esteem, ask yourself when was the last time you saw this friendly person online and thought, ‘Oh, why can’t I be happy like them?’ Your children are making the same types of comparisons.”   

When a child has a lot of social interaction online, it can intensify some negative emotions.   

“Real time away from people can take children who are anxious and make them even more anxious,” stated Salem. “Because they aren’t exposed to social experiences, they get more nervous about them when they’re going to happen.”     

 A proper introduction   

Knowing the issues that can arise, some parents are wary of allowing their kids time online. But Salem said that just like anything – you have to give your children a proper introduction to the internet.    

“It’s very much the same as a child who starts going out with their friends,” explained Salem. “Maybe they get to go outside all by themselves, or they get to walk to a store and back. The internet and social media are the same way. Introduce it to them very gradually based on trust levels and supervision.”   

By starting early and showing younger kids the right way to interact with the internet, parents lay down a solid foundation for future online browsing.    

 “They kind of understand that more time is earned and trust is earned,” said Salem. “It’s a gradual thing – just like anything that could be a danger but doesn’t have to be. Introduce it slowly with some intentionality.”   

While educating kids about online safety rules, parents need to make sure they are modeling healthy internet practices.    

“You can make sure normal family routines are still held,” stated Salem. “Mealtime is deficient of any kind of electronics. Show that there is a time for families to do stuff without electronics, and there’s time for people to be on the internet.”   

Teens and the battle for online autonomy   

As your kids grow, their internet usage is most likely increasing – due to school and an expanded social circle. It can seem like a daunting task to negotiate online safety rules with an angsty teen. But by taking a step back and looking at it from their perspective, it might make internet safety go a bit more smoothly.    

“It’s good to understand the adolescent brain,” said Salem. “If it’s not about them, it’s really not important. Parents will think their teens are so selfish or self-involved, but that’s how they’re supposed to be! That is developmentally correct. Look at screen time how it affects them. How will they perceive any restrictions you put in? Is it a punishment? Is it an earned thing? You have to decide how to approach it and then come up with a good plan.”   

Sticking to your plan is essential, but according to Salem, all parents have a secret advantage.   

“The lucky thing for parents is that we are all DNA-coded to want the love and acceptance of our parents,” explained Salem. “If the parents are setting a good example and say, ‘You can have screen time, but I am really missing you right now. I would just like to bake some cookies with you.’ That is very attractive to kids, even if they may not tell you that.”      

And when you do get that quality time together, make it count.   

“Get off your electronics when you’re talking,” said Salem. “Kids pick up right away whether you’re listening or not. They seem like they don’t care, but they really do.”   

Make it positive   

For all families, it’s important to find the right balance for you when it comes to internet safety. Offering up choices for walks together or time outside with friends are great alternatives. You can also show kids the internet is not only for entertainment.    

“Any time children are learning something and can share what they learn is always a good use of internet time,” said Salem. “Teach them to say hello in five different languages. If you’re having a discussion and don’t know what the answer is, look it up and share it. Any mutual kind of things that you are doing together will show a very instructional use of the internet.”     

No matter the boundaries you set, it’s the discussion around them that might prove more beneficial for you and your family.   

“It’s much like when you start watching movies with your child, and you don’t know what rating you should watch,” explained Salem. “It’s not so much the rating. It’s what you share with your child. It’s the discussions it prompts. It’s that valuable time together that is important.”    

And if you’re a parent whose kid knows more about technology than you do, you don’t have to be too worried.    

 “Those young brains are just like sponges,” explained Salem. “They learn technology very early, and there is nothing wrong with that at all.”