Chicken vs egg; social media vs anxiety and depression?

South Africa

Journalists, educators, and parents  are quick to blame social media for the increase in mental health issues in our teens. Phrases like ‘mental health crisis,’ are thrown about in the news as if the only thing that would solve our teens’ problems is the immediate ban of all smartphones, or better yet, the creation of self-combusting phones.


The latest academic research coming out of the Oxford Internet Institute suggests that there is currently insufficient evidence to warrant our global panic about screens and our teens! In simple language: social media cannot be proven to be the cause of this “mental health crisis.”


At KLIKD we decided to unpack a few facts and get clear on the fiction.


So, is technology to blame for our teens’ mental health demise?


On the surface of this research is what looks like a logical equation – the increase in mental health issues has occurred pretty much at same time that social media and smartphones were being adopted by Gen Z. However, just because there is a relationship between screen adoption and our teens mental wellbeing, it appears that one (the screens) caused the other (a rise in teen depression, anxiety, suicide rates). Nope!



There is no doubt that the arrows are connected – but in this relationship we don’t know which comes first…do teens with poor mental health gravitate more towards screens or do the screens cause the demise in our teens’ mental wellbeing? Is it that young people with mental health issues lean towards technology as a coping mechanism, or is social media and tech time actually causing mental health issues?



At KLIKD, we like to think that technology is one of many of the ingredients that go into the recipe called ‘poor mental health’ in the same way that diet is only one aspect of poor physical health. Dr Kristy Goodwin, a leading researcher in the field of device impact, puts it well when she says that the screens are not so much the cause of poor teen mental health but rather, they create what she terms ‘the displacement effect.’



What does the displacement effect mean? It means our basic psychological and physical needs are being shaped and displaced by technology and it’s this displacement, rather than the screens in and of themselves that affect the decline in mental health.



Displacement, a psychological term, is really just a fancy way of saying that the use of screens comes at an opportunity cost. Technology presents our young people with some form of  loss when they are on the screen – from the obvious to the less obvious – exercise,  engagement, practicing real-life bumps and how to bounce back in those hard to manage moments. The cost comes when our kids don’t know how to ask a friend on a date in real life, how to have an argument and survive it (rather than simply block someone) and how to assert yourself when you want to take a stand.


There are five main opportunity costs that we have to consider when exploring  device usage and mental health in teens. So, what are the biggies?


1. Relationships


Our  teens and tweens (especially in the time of Covid) are all too quick to tell us how screens are the way they are connecting and relating – but it doesn’t allow for what we at KLIKD call “deep-dive relating”. Relationships online don’t allow for that space of rubbing shoulders in a movie; actual touch; that feeling when someone opens a door for you at school or looks at you across a room; or holding a real-life conversation where you apologise to someone and look them in the eye or ask them to walk home with you after school


2. Sleep

 Young or old, disrupted sleep is a killer if you trying to sustain mental health. No points for working that one out, right? It is not only the blue light emitted from screens, which hampers the production of melatonin (a much needed sleep-inducing chemical), but also, and often more importantly, the content usually consumed on screens serves to wire the brain as opposed to putting it in a restful state



3. Us

 Yes – we, the adults in our children’s lives are displaced by our screen and  our teens need us. Our teens, despite all that they say to the contrary, crave our connection and time. When we are on a screen all day, we become one of their opportunity costs.



4. Physical Movement

 Opportunities for physical movement are also being displaced by technology. Movement boosts serotonin, the feel-good chemical, sunshine boosts vitamin D levels and regulates our sleep rhythm, all pretty critical to optimum health.



5. Alone Time

Alone time is so crucial to finding out who you are. When we have the option of filling all blank space with a Netflix movie, we forget how to work out what we are feeling and when are feeling it. Bored is the default teen feeling, but there are so many feelings underneath that emotion that have to be discovered.



So if we were to remove social media would these issues disappear ? Of course not. Download our free Klikd Top Ten Tips on Preventing Screen-Induced Anxiety and Depression to make see how much of a contributing factor social media really is to your screenager’s moodiness/anxiety/stress/anger/sadness? This 10-step checklist provides practical ways to assess this and helps you and your screenager get the best out that little rectangular device forever in their hands.




Upskill your teen with EQ skills: Teaching your kids and teens about EQ has never been more important than in the digital age. Recognising their own online vulnerabilities (what makes them feel good, what makes them feel bad, what makes them distracted vs focused etc. and what they can do when they feel that way), is one of the most important 21st century skills you can give your children. The Klikd App teaches your teen how to recognise his/her own online vulnerabilities and quips them with practical skills to implement in the ever-changing online world. Better yet. Its all presented by teens for teens in a way that makes the message really stick.


Above all, stay connected.


- Sarah and Pam

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