Healthy Tahoe: Risks for children as life gets more digital

Dr. Matt Wong
Dr. Matt Wong

As parents adapt to a more digital life balancing work, distance learning with their children’s education, family health, and a host of other challenges, their kids and teens are adapting as well.

Fostering open communication with young ones strengthens the parent-child relationship and helps address potential risks associated with the increased screen time of our new normal.

Although screen time for school work is essential, spending more time online can increase social media engagement. Children, especially girls, are acutely vulnerable to cyberbullying on social media platforms. Taunting, name calling and other harassment that used to take place on the playground, in backyards, or out in public has moved online and has done so in a hugely impactful way for our youth.

Social media use has consistently been linked to increases in low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression in children, partly due to the digital bullying that can happen on the platforms.

By taking place online, a problem that was once limited to certain situations or places has been given a near limitless platform that is not easily escaped by kids.

Most parents I’ve worked with are largely unaware of the multitude of ways in which a child may be exposed to cyberbullying. The platforms that our children use evolve quickly and despite our best efforts to keep up, many parents are unable to stay ahead of the trends.

The safe assumption is to know that cyberbullying is prone to happen — possibly right under our noses and without our immediate awareness. Not every child will experience cyberbullying, but parents should understand what they can do to prevent or help it.

The most protective factor in preventing and minimizing cyberbullying is to foster a strong line of communication with your child. Fortunately, this also happens to be the first line of defense in working with your child to avoid anxiety, depression, drugs, and gangs. Spend time talking and reviewing what they’ve experienced on the social media app, and validating how their feelings are impacted.

If your child is experiencing cyberbullying, avoid immediately taking away their access to technology. Many children withhold telling their parents they are being bullied on a tech platform because they are worried about having their privileges revoked.

Instead, have an open and honest conversation about choosing to use a different platform or visit a different website. Monitor their online conversations, and offer to help them formulate a response. Finally, consider using parental controls to limit specific applications where cyberbullying is occurring – especially for younger kids.

Warning signs that your child is experiencing cyberbullying can be wide-ranging, but a common red flag is a stubbornness to an online activity or task: what used to be easy for your child but is now difficult. It is best for parents to not to wait for warning signs to start building communication. As we spend more time together with current shelter in place orders, take this opportunity to ask your child if they are being singled out, and offer help without punishment.

Dr. Matt Wong is a licensed psychologist in South Lake Tahoe specializing in assessment and therapy for children, adolescents, adults and families.

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