Parents, educators and other school support personnel work diligently to ensure that the children in their care develop the tools needed to thrive academically, socially and emotionally in a rapidly evolving world. However, despite our good efforts there are many variables outside our control that influence youth mental health.

For parents, daily interactions with their children may consist of a sleepy-eyed goodbye before stumbling out the door at 7 a.m. and a quick dinnertime conversation before the child disappears into an electronic abyss. For educators, it may be a class period or two a day with attention divided among dozens of other students with important needs. But what is happening outside of these timeframes?

It’s easy to point the finger at technology and social media as the root of all evil, but it would benefit us to dissect the issue a bit further. According to a recent Duke University study, “More use of technology is linked to later increases in attention, behavior and self-regulation problems for adolescents already at risk for mental health issues.”

However, it’s not time to throw away the computers and confiscate the phones just yet. Despite the connection between cyberbullying and increased mental health issues, the same Duke University study found that more frequent use of technology in general was actually associated with fewer reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. For example, texting ‘HOME’ to 741741, will connect you with a crisis counselor via text message. In that respect, technology can not only be helpful, it can be lifesaving!

Here are some other tips for parents and caregivers to support your children’s mental health in the digital age and make the most of your time together:

Build open and healthy communication

Try to carve out a set time each day to check in with your child about how things are going. Ask leading questions that invite discussion such as “What was your favorite part of today?” as opposed to “How was school today?” Avoid interrupting or making judgements, even if you disagree with their choices, and validate the feelings that accompany those choices. Children model the behavior they see at home, so as you practice active listening with your own children, you not only establish yourself as a safe person with whom they feel comfortable opening up but also help them to build empathy and develop their own positive communication skills.

Designate ‘electronics free’ times — for your kids and yourself

An increase in parental technology use has been linked to increased behavioral issues in young children, so modeling good habits is essential. Work to establish electronics-free time for yourself, particularly during opportunities for social interaction. Technology usage apps may also be useful for developing healthy technology habits.

Have a set time at least once a week to be engaged in family activities that don’t require the use of electronics. Game nights, working on a puzzle together or going on hikes are a few great ways to use this time. These types of activities are an opportunity to increase social engagement with one another and further build on communication and problem-solving skills.

Collaborate and stay engaged with your child’s school team

Even though all of us individually may have limited time with the children we serve and care for during the week, we’re all separate but important parts of a team. Unfortunately, nearly 40% of Utah youth suffering from major depressive episodes did not receive treatment in 2015. To decrease that number, make sure that you’re aware of who the various support people on that team are (e.g., teachers, counselors, school psychologists, school administrators) and how to contact them. Don’t hesitate to seek help, ask questions or express concerns. Remember that we’re all working toward the common goal of developing the academic, social and emotional skills that will help them be successful in life long after they’re out of school.

Make internet safety a priority

Have conversations with your children about healthy internet habits, such as not sharing personal information online, not sharing or asking for explicit images and blocking or reporting those engaged in cyberbullying. Keep family computers in an open area of the house to encourage transparency. Utilize parental controls to block inappropriate content.

Have open conversations around mental health

Don’t hesitate to ask your children how they’re doing emotionally, even if they seem to be happy and doing well. Many are going through hidden struggles and internalizing a lot of negative feelings that may not always be apparent. If you have concerns, don’t be afraid to openly ask if they’ve ever contemplated suicide or hurting themselves. Ask in a direct way, such as “Have you ever had thoughts of hurting yourself” as opposed to “You’re not thinking of hurting yourself, are you?” Asking directly encourages open discussion. Your school psychologist can help with these conversations by serving as a resource at school and also connecting you with community mental health resources.

Utah is one of 11 states in which the prevalence of child mental health disorders exceeds 20%. Though a shortage of mental health resources can make it difficult to provide adequate care to those in need, of equal concern is a lack of awareness of resources.

I often hear individuals remarking that they weren’t even aware the school had a psychologist! Yet school psychologists can play an extremely important role in serving the mental health needs of our youth and helping parents and teachers “plug in” to what’s going on with their kids.

For more information about caring for your child’s mental health and promoting safe social media practices, please visit uasp.wildapricot.org/events to register for this year’s Utah Association of School Psychologists Fall Conference. The conference will be held on Oct. 25 at the Davis Conference Center and will focus on Social Media and Mental Health: Living a Balanced and Happy Life. Dr. Sarah Coyne will be providing concrete tools and interventions. She will also teach about strategies for positive social media use and implications for suicide prevention for parents and educators alike.

Additionally, School Psychology Awareness Week is Nov. 11-15, 2019. This would be a great time to connect with your school psychologist to ask about their role or simply to share a note of encouragement. Together we can make a difference!

Kevin Labresh is currently a practicing school psychologist with the Davis School District and board member of the Utah Association of School Psychologists. If you would like to contact Kevin, you can do so at klabresh@dsdmail.net.

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