How to get a balance

Technology has increasingly blurred the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds. This has brought about dramatic changes in everyday life and changed the way children and adolescents live, socialize, move and learn.

This has never been more evident before than at the onset of the COVID pandemic and the subsequent exponential increase in technology and internet usage. Global estimates suggest that one in three internet users is a child.

Digital technology exposes children to information, social connections, education, online support groups and professional help. Yet children who engage in the digital world are also exposed to a range of threats. These include inappropriate content (violent or sexual), unwanted contact with strangers, and online bullying and victimization.

The South African Child Gauge is an annual publication which aims to report on and monitor the situation of children in South Africa, in particular the realization of their rights. This year, the theme of the report is child and youth mental health.

Lately, there has been growing public debate and concern that digital technologies may contribute to mental health issues such as depression, self-harm, and suicide in adolescents and children. To contribute to the collective understanding of the experiences and consequences of growing up in a digital world, our chapter of the Child Gauge report aims to interrogate the impact of digital worlds on children’s mental health. We also want to make policy and practice recommendations.

How South African children are using digital technology

South Africa has approximately 38 million internet users (1.5 million households). Children most often go online on smartphones, using mobile data at home, and the level of online engagement increases as children get older. Mobile phone plans in South Africa also provide free or cheaper access to social media platforms, making social media usage far more prevalent than any other online activity, boosting content with which children interact online.

The relationship between digital technology and mental health is complex.

To understand the impact of the digital environment on children’s mental health, one must consider not only the potential risks, but also the benefits of the online world.

Not all exposures to online threats cause harm. For example, participating in a public Facebook group could put a child at risk of sexual grooming, as adults sometimes pose as children. But this will not necessarily result in harm if a child is able to prevent, anticipate and deal with the bullying attempt.

Teens struggling with mental health issues offline may be more likely than others to seek out negative content online. This can amplify their existing mental health issues and lead to self-harm. But social media can also be a source of mental health information, support and professional help.

It is therefore useful to consider how to foster the (digital) resilience of children so that they understand the risks they are likely to encounter at different ages and know when they are at risk. It is also important that they know what to do and how to recover from negative experiences.

Keeping children safe online

Realizing the benefits of technology for children’s mental health and well-being, while limiting exposure to online threats, requires a holistic approach. This includes recognizing the role that parents and guardians, educators, government regulators, technology companies and children themselves must play in promoting the mental health and well-being of children in all aspects of children’s online engagement.

Parents often think that banning social media and the internet will keep their children safe, but that is not the case. Prohibiting the use of the Internet can lead to the social exclusion of children or prevent them from accessing mental health services or information.

While parental controls and surveillance technologies have their place, it is internal safeguards like empathy, resilience and values ​​that are more powerful and serve children throughout their lives, whether online or offline.

Parents need to engage in an open dialogue with their children. This will build rapport and allow children to open up about their use of social media. Parents should also model good citizenship (social literacy, community engagement, responsibility, respect for the rights and perspectives of others) and healthy digital habits for their children.

The tech industry has a huge role to play in designing products with the best interests of the child in mind. The confidentiality of personal data of young users must be protected and their right to freedom of expression must be preserved. Systems must be in place to address child rights violations when they occur.

School policies, regulations and guidelines should aim to balance the protection of children with their privacy rights and to use technology in an age-appropriate manner. These policies should promote positive use of digital technologies, while taking steps to restrict access to harmful content.

Training for educators is also needed so that they can identify children who show symptoms of trauma or distress as a result of online harm and can refer them to psychosocial support services.

Last but not least, children must have access to information, education and training to support the development of their own digital literacy skills. They need to feel confident to ask for help when needed and know that it will be provided.

Dr. Rachana Desai is a contributor to the South African Child Gauge 2021/2022. This annual report on the state of children in South Africa is published by the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town in partnership with the DSI-NRF Center of Excellence in Human Development at the University of the Witwatersrand; UNICEF South Africa; the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation and the LEGO Foundation.

Rachana Desai, post-doctoral researcher, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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