Digital Wellbeing For South Africa’s Youth In The Spotlight Amid Mental Health Concerns

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Young South Africans are spending more time online than ever before. While the web offers great opportunities for education, creativity and social interaction, there is also the risk of increased exposure to harmful content, cyberbullying, age-inappropriate advertising, and data misuse. There is also growing concern both internationally and in South Africa over the link between social media use and rising rates of teen depression and anxiety. Because the benefits and potential threats of the online world don’t exist separately from one another, it can be difficult for teens and their parents to navigate an ever-changing digital landscape. It’s all about finding a good middle ground between promoting healthy online use and taking a proactive approach against the risks, says Carey van Vlaanderen, CEO of ESET Southern Africa

According to the World Health Organisation, depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents. In the United States, results from a Centres for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that around one in three high school girls have seriously considered attempting suicide and more than half of teen girls, 57%, reported feeling ‘persistently sad or hopeless’. In South Africa, 73% of children and youth felt they needed mental health support in 2022, of which just 38% actively sought help, according to the latest UNICEF South Africa U-Report poll.

Organisations such as the Centre for Human Technology, as well as noted psychologists and researchers, like Jonathan Haidt argue that social media is a major cause of the mental health crisis among young people, and that rates of adolescent depression, anxiety, and self-harm started climbing sharply around 2012, shortly after daily social-media use became pervasive among teens through smartphones and apps. According to the Centre for Humane Technology, exposure to unrestrained levels of digital technology can have serious long-term consequences for children and teens’ development and overall wellbeing. 

While not all research finds a direct link between social media use and poorer mental health outcomes across every country, being aware of the role that digital platforms and social media can play as a source of anxiety, stress and poor self-image for young people is important. For parents, helping teens navigate these complex topics can be daunting. With the right understanding and guidance, however, it is possible to help young people develop healthy relationships with social media and maintain a positive self-image in the process. 

Open, honest, and ongoing conversations that aren’t fearmongering or moralistic are crucial. The digital environment is a fundamental and unavoidable part of the world we live in which means talking about online safety and encouraging the right digital skills should be as natural as talking about any other important issue that teens encounter.

Discussing Mental Health And Digital Wellbeing

Whether in schools or at home, creating an enabling environment where mental health can be discussed openly is the first step in the right direction. Conversations about body image, particularly with girls, and the pressures they may be feeling from images in the media or on social media platforms, should be encouraged and validated. While social media has its benefits, it’s important to keep in mind that online platforms can never be a replacement for real-world human connection. 

Monitoring Online Activity Together 

It’s important that parents and caregivers know what teens are doing online. Honest dialogue and establishing boundaries around which platforms are appropriate and the amount of screen time that is healthy can be a collaborative approach. Teenagers can, and often do, understand that excessive screen time isn’t ideal. Agreeing on the potentially harmful impacts of too much time online paves the way for young people to be more thoughtful about their online lives and which platforms make them feel positive, safe and empowered and which ones don’t.

Using The Positive Power Of Technology

The more empowered parents and teens are with the right information and the right cybersecurity tools, the better they can reap the benefits of the online environment. Being savvy about online privacy and how to use various social media platforms’ safety settings is an invaluable digital skill. In addition, security and parental control tools can help parents and teens curate the content categories accessed across the devices that teens use to connect to the internet, whether through a laptop, tablet, or mobile phone. 

Taking Mental Health Seriously

For teens and families who have concerns about mental health, help and resources are available. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) provide a list of toll-free helplines and support groups. There are also a host of online resources available for teens, parents, and educators that provide tips, advice and interactive activities centred around navigating today’s digital world with confidence.