An important part of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has been screen-based activity, especially to help children and young people manage their social and psychological well-being. Before the pandemic and associated lockdown, governments and third-sector organisations were very worried about the potential of screen use to cause harm among young people. Now, they are enthusiastically embracing its potential to keep social ties alive and to ensure that physical distancing need not mean social distancing too.
Among teens, screens can be used in lots of different ways. Young people play games virtually with their friends, they share their lives via social media, meet up and chat in virtual spaces, watch TV simultaneously, and continue to share academic spaces using technology such as Google Classrooms. As such, it’s important that teenagers and their parents look out for both good and bad things that might happen over the coming weeks and months.
One issue for teenagers is their emerging sexuality. Meeting new partners, nurturing existing relationships, and exploring what their own and their partner’s bodies do is a natural and important developmental milestone of adolescence.
It lays the groundwork for relationships in later life and is a process where there are often many mis-steps and declarations of undying love.
Increasingly, young people see sexting as a normal part of this process despite the possibility of images and messages being shared beyond the boundaries of a romantic relationship. Lockdown could lead to young people taking part in sexting more often as their non-screen-based alternatives for relationship exploration dwindle to little or nothing. In this context, it’s important for young people to know about the interpersonal, social, and legal risks of sending sexual imagery involving minors and of holding such imagery on their own devices.
In our increasingly digitised lives, it becomes even more important to make discussions around digital identity and well-being part of everyday conversation. This includes the importance of helping young people understand privacy in the digital age and the nature of their ‘digital footprint’ (the traces we leave online) and being in control of it to minimise future harm. It’s important that parents model appropriate online behaviour here; recognising that their actions can negatively impact their child’s digital footprint through ‘sharenting’ or the sharing of information about their child without their consent. Working with children and young people to control their digital footprint may encourage and empower them to think before they send and actively reduce risky behaviours.
Another example of a screen-based activity that may be sensitive to our new COVID-19 context is cyberbullying. Of course, cyberbullying took place among teenagers before lockdown but now, more than ever, the importance of online communities for helping people of all ages through this difficult time is being emphasised by Governments and bodies such as the WHO.
With young people online more often, and for more frequent and longer periods, there also come more opportunities for cyberbullying to take place.
Simple advice for parents is to be alert to the possible signs of bullying, such as changing moods. Of course, during the pandemic and lockdown, changes in mood will already be part-and-parcel of young people’s reactions. As such, other ways to tackle the problem may be more appropriate, such as having an open dialogue with teens about their online experiences and raising awareness of screen time as something we all have to manage. One way to encourage a positive impact on well-being is to recognise the benefits of particular types of screen-use activities and platform or app use, while highlighting potential dangers of sharing intimate details and minimising negative experiences online.
And right now, more than ever, parents need to reassure their children than ‘just switch it off’ won’t be their default response. Even during normal times, ‘just switch it off’ is usually not helpful because teens (like you and I) use their phones for so many different activities that ‘just switch it off’ translates as: ‘Isolate yourself from your friends and peers’. We also know that ‘just switching it off’ does not solve any existing or imminent issues around online relationships, sexting or cyberbullying or answer any questions that young people may have.
It is becoming clear, especially in the age of COVID-19, that digital well-being is more about what we do (or don’t do) with our screen time, rather than just focusing on the time spent on screens.
Active use in the form of connection and direct exchanges with others on social media platforms tends to be better for our well-being than passive scrolling. Online exchanges can also be creative and physically demanding, as showcased by the popularity of TikTok during lockdown. The short clips are chiefly a form of digital play and we know that play is linked to well-being for both children and adults. Even here though, it is important for parents to know that TikTok can expose children and young people to sexual or violent content and to cyberbullying, again highlighting the importance of family discussion around screen-based activity and privacy issues.
Image credit: Freepik
Simon Hunter is a Professor of Applied Psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University.
Dr Jane Guiller is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University.