Excessive screen time is a factor in loneliness, mental health risks for young people

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts on the impact of isolation and loneliness.

Michele Wentzel knows when one of her three children is upset.

“They sort of isolate themselves and are very moody,” she said. “I can tell there’s something going on.”

Wentzel keeps the lines of communication open with his sons in their Youngwood household, so he didn’t have to search for messages on his eldest daughter’s phone before the now 14-year-old girl revealed she was having issues with some friends on her soccer team. soccer.

“A lot of it came via text messages,” Wentzel said. “We had to block some children and argue with some parents and coaches. Once there was some distance and there was no chance for those kids to connect with my daughter, we saw a difference in her mood.

Bullying is one of the negative effects young people can experience when communicating with remote devices, a type of interaction that has become more prominent for all ages with the arrival of the covid-19 pandemic and social distancing concerns in 2020 .

That enforced reliance on virtual connections has brought to light the negative impacts of too broad an embrace of screen time.

US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy touched on this issue in a recent advisory, bringing awareness to an epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the country.

Overindulgence in social media

A study cited by Murthy found that people who used social media for two hours or more a day were more than twice as likely to feel socially isolated than those who were on such platforms for less than 30 minutes a day.

That’s a concern for Patti Lewis, director of behavioral health for Westmoreland County-based Excela Health, now part of the Independence Health System.

“People are on their phones and devices all the time and don’t actually communicate verbally with another person.” Lewis said. “I have seen people sitting side by side and instead of talking to each other, they are texting each other.

“I think that contributes to some of the feelings of isolation and loneliness. You don’t hear the intonation in people’s voices when you’re just reading text on a screen.

Laurie Barnett Levine, CEO of Southwestern PA, Greensburg-based Mental Health America, expressed concern about the addictive pull some people have for social media.

“For some people, this becomes their life, not socializing face-to-face with people,” she said. To make matters worse, “I think covid has really done a number on our population in terms of socialization. We relied more on social media. He keeps us connected in some ways but disconnected in others ».

“Anything that can give you an immediate response can be addictive, and social media absolutely is,” said Heather McLean, outreach coordinator for Mental Health America in Southwestern PA. “People are looking to see how many likes they got or they want to see what other people are saying. It’s not just the young. If that’s all you’re doing, it’s not good.

“You can order everything online and never leave the house if you don’t want to,” Lewis said. “You don’t have to interact with anyone in person. Some people can get so involved that they don’t even realize they are alone.

“Some people have gone down the rabbit hole because it’s just easier for them. They don’t realize it could be loneliness, it could be depression.”

Losing touch with peers

Isolation and related behavioral health challenges are growing concerns for today’s youth, both nationally and regionally.

The loneliness epidemic is hitting young people, aged 15 to 24, particularly hard. That age group reported a 70 percent decline in time spent with friends, according to Murthy.

“More and more young people are pretty isolated,” said clinical psychologist Lisa McCay, who oversees the outpatient therapy department of the Armstrong County Family Counseling Center. “It used to be that people in their teens and twenties who were in school or in the working population were connected to people by virtue of those activities. Now, more are doing online schooling and remote work.

While such virtual interactions are better than nothing, McCay said, “It’s not the same as the (in-person) connections you make in everyday life.”

“I think the pandemic has brought a lot of that to light,” Lewis said. “When you’re not able to communicate effectively with someone how you feel, I think that’s what has led to a lot of problems.”

A few years before the pandemic, the Armstrong County Counseling Center began placing therapists in 13 schools, to address the mental health needs of students in the Armstrong, Leechburg Area and Apollo-Ridge districts. In those contexts, McCay said, “There are several hundred children that we see over the course of a year.”

Sadness on the rise

Drawing on data from a survey of youth risk behavior of US high school students, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly three in five US teen girls (57%) felt consistently sad or hopeless in 2021, compared to 36% in 2011.

Teens with sadness or despair increased from 21% to 29% over the same period. Nearly 1 in 3 (30%) teenage girls have seriously considered attempting suicide, an increase of nearly 60% from a decade earlier.

“We are seeing a much higher rate of adolescents and young adults with complex mental health challenges that impact their day-to-day functioning,” said Dr. Robert Marc Davis, medical director of Wesley Family Services, which offers behavioral health and social services programs for all age groups in Westmoreland County and throughout Western Pennsylvania.

Problems growing among young people, Davis said, include substance use, self-harm and suicidal thoughts or ideas.

Since the start of the pandemic, referrals to a high school in the Whitehall District have increased, where Wesley provides mental health care to children whose needs cannot be met in a normal public school setting.

“We’ve observed children who aren’t as confident in social interactions as they were a few years ago,” said Ryan Turner, the school’s clinical director. “I’ve heard of kids playing online for hours on end instead of hanging out with their friends. They are not developing social skills or helping manage their anxiety.

“I’ve seen some kids weighing a lot more than they did before the pandemic, and I think it’s related to the isolation.”

Good, bad login results

Wentzel has seen the positive and negative impacts of online communications among young people in her dual roles as a mother and child probation officer for Westmoreland County.

Some juvenile offenders are referred to Wentzel for a course teaching about cyberbullying and internet safety.

At home, she witnessed how her youngest daughter, now 10, benefited from using the internet for online lessons at the Hempfield Area School District during the early stages of the pandemic.

“It took away from her personal face-to-face contact with her teacher, but it also gave her an alertness to use the technology she needs to learn,” Wentzel said. “Now in the fourth grade she’s able to send an email and Google things appropriate to do research.”

Wentzel and her husband didn’t let their children have cellphones until they entered middle school, and require their children to reveal their passwords as a condition of creating accounts on social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.

They take advantage of settings through their Internet provider that allow them to monitor their children’s screen time and instruct them not to reveal their personal information online.

“I like to think we’re pretty astute about looking after our kids’ mental health and supervising them so they use the internet safely,” Wentzel said. “We probably allowed them more freedom during the pandemic because we were worried they would miss out on interactions with their friends.

“I’m not nosy or a helicopter mom. It’s about keeping my children safe.

Jeff Himler is a staff writer at Tribune-Review. You can reach Jeff via email at or via Twitter .

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