The average American teen is spending eight hours each day consuming digital content. Of course, that’s discounting screen time for school and homework. With documentaries like The Social Dilemma overtly calling out the dark side of all-access technology, the correlation between excessive screen time and increased teen anxiety, depression, and cyber-bullying isn’t surprising.
We know screens are addictive because of the dopamine hit we get with each notification ping. Platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram are designed to hack our brains by prodding at our basic psycho-emotional needs, wants, and neuroses. As adults, we battle to keep our digital compulsions under control. Imagine what it’s like for teenagers with low impulse control and brains wired to seek peer connection.
It’s easy to feel helpless against media and technology giants or fantasize about moving your family to an off-the-grid farm. But the reality is that your children will engage with social media, binge-watch videos and series, and watch dubious advertising.
Rather than figuring out where the big off-switch is (hint: there isn’t one), it’s in our interest to get curious about this 21st-century digital beast. Researchers have started asking how we can use its powers for good, and the results are relieving.
All Screen Time Is Not Equal
We know that exposure to violent content can lead to an increase in aggression in children and teens. Yet, with the same reasoning, it’s been mistakenly thought that we’re taking precautionary action if we don’t expose them to narratives of suicide, sexual abuse, and mental health issues. However, this rationale is missing a vital component: the power of narrative to create or destroy, heal or disturb.
The popular American teen drama 13 Reasons Why explores and depicts a wide range of social issues affecting modern youth. Its narrative includes teen suicide, sexual assault, bullying, racism, homophobia, school shootings, and mental health. The show is explicit in exploring these topics. While there has been criticism from psychological associations, a research report by the Center for Scholars and Storytellers at UCLA reveals these challenging, realistic stories actually inspire youth to talk and learn about mental health issues.
Key report findings include:
- Ninety-three percent of teen viewers looked for information on mental health. Eighty-eight percent discussed mental health after watching the show.
- Ninety-three percent of social media conversations around bullying, suicide, and mental health were positive and supportive, with 687,556 total mentions of key topics related to the show after Season One.
- Spurred by the show, male-identified viewers who reported that they had been subject to sexual assault sought information on this topic
“Our findings indicate that teens who experienced sexual assault—or were close to someone who had—were particularly motivated to seek out information related to stories from the show. One of Season 3’s major storylines was about Jessica, a victim of sexual assault, becoming an advocate for others. In addition, the season documented Tyler’s emotional recovery from his own sexual assault.” ~Center for Scholars and Storytellers
The Power of Story To Reach Teens
If narrative, positioning, and approach are vital in determining whether a show is helpful, harmful, or ineffective, it’s worth understanding why. According to the report, “one study found that a fictional storyline was more effective at changing behavior than a documentary with statistics and experts.” AKA, when the most challenging parts of life are honestly and accurately addressed through the mechanism of resonant, emotional storytelling, there’s the power to shift behavior and attitudes.
The concern then is not that teens are exposed to difficult subjects but rather how they are exposed to them. 13 Reasons Why is an example of hard subject matter made accessible through authenticity, conscious intent, and relevance. It’s this kind of exposure that helps normalize teens’ experiences and destigmatizes help-seeking. Ways for healthy and supportive discussions about mental health, abuse, and the rest also become open.
Resources for Viewers
The show’s producers also created a website featuring videos by the actors, crisis-line numbers, and links to resources to help viewers navigate the topics raised in various episodes. The Center for Scholars and Storytellers report recommends that, like the producers of 13 Reasons Why, studios create and provide credible, engaging resources with accurate information to accompany TV shows and films designed for teens that address mental health and related issues. Examples include toolkits developed by public health experts that are designed to support teens as they discuss these issues with parents and friends.
“Media is such a powerful force in the lives of children and teens,” says Nusheen Ameenuddin, a pediatrician at Mayo Clinic and Chair of the AAP Council on Communications and Media. “Creating content that normalizes and encourages seeking help from trusted adults and health professionals can have a profound impact in helping young people struggling with mental health concerns. As a pediatrician, I know that the entertainment industry reaches far more kids and families than I do. What a benefit it would be to help families open critical conversations and empower them to connect with needed resources to feel better and be healthy.”
How You Can Support Your Teens
Navigating the digital world to get more of what supports our wellbeing and less of what harms us requires intentional action. When it comes to supporting teens, start by learning what it is to ACTT:
Take the blinders off. Do the research. Get uncomfortable. It’s dire out there. We’re in a digitally-fed mental health crisis with teens being walloped. So upgrade your general knowledge of the issues and get curious about where your teen fits into the current climate.
Take on the responsibility of building the bridge of communication between you and your teens. Normalize talking about difficult and taboo topics by approaching them organically. For example, comment on a traumatic moment in a show. Point out sexist lyrics in a song or acknowledge your aunt’s discomfort when same-sex marriage came up at Sunday lunch.
Talk about your struggles with stress, mental health, relationships, or whatever feels relevant in your family. If there’s a family history of mental health struggles, addiction, or trauma, talk openly about these.
Move the conversation from the “problem” to how you’ve learned to support your mental wellbeing. Engage in self-care activities with your teen. Invite them and a friend to a Saturday yoga class or go for a barefoot forest walk together.
Explore as a family how you can work together to use technology in a supportive way. It might be a reward at the end of the week for the family member who was online the least. Or figuring out which shows are adding value to your lives and which social accounts it’s time to unfollow.
- Center for Scholars and Storytellers
- Center for Humane Technology
- Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development
Written by Roxana Bouwer
Top photo by Oleg Magni on Unsplash