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CT experts weigh in on the impact of the digital world on youth mental health

CEO of Meta, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledges family members as they hold up photos during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with representatives of social media companies at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Wednesday January 31, 2024 in Washington, DC.
Matt McClain / The Washington Post
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CEO of Meta, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledges family members as they hold up photos during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with representatives of social media companies at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Wednesday January 31, 2024 in Washington, DC.

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While users say social media and digital devices are vital for staying connected, research indicates potential negative effects, particularly for young users. Connecticut community leaders, health care providers and politicians are all trying to address the issue.

Johanna Rincon, the executive director of Girls on the Run, launched a mission in 2016 to boost the confidence of teen and pre-teen girls and get them active offline. Her after-school program, designed for third to eighth graders, focuses on the journey of training them to run a 5K.

Operating in various towns, Rincon said she has noticed a rise in mental health issues among girls, pointing to their constant use of social media and electronic devices. Rincon said despite these challenges, her organization provides physical and mental health programs.

“I think is a really great place that for 90 minutes [to] two hours, we know that these girls are having something that is stimulating them, that is bringing them up, instead of making them feel insecure,” she said.

According to Rincon, one-third of Girls on the Run members identify as people of color, and 45% receive scholarships. A recent Pew Research Center study indicates that screen media usage varies significantly among Gen Z and social media users from different ethnic groups. Notably, 87% of Black teens use TikTok, surpassing Hispanic teens at 71% and white teens at 62%.

Meanwhile, teen girls of all ethnicities are more likely than boys to report using TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, leaving them more vulnerable to content on those platforms.

The Executive Director of Girls on the Run, Johanna Rincon (not pictured) emphasizes an increase in mental health issues among girls due to their frequent online engagement. She emphasizes that her organization helps young people participate in positive activities.
Provided
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Girls on the Run
The Executive Director of Girls on the Run, Johanna Rincon (not pictured) emphasizes an increase in mental health issues among girls due to their frequent online engagement. She emphasizes that her organization helps young people participate in positive activities.

“Social media and electronic devices are designed to be addictive," said Dr. Melissa Otero, a clinical psychologist in Greenwich, Connecticut, who specializes in anxiety, child or adolescent issues and parenting.

In a world where digital devices have become integral to daily life, she emphasized the impact of social media on children's self-esteem. Otero said the addictive nature of social media triggers dopamine responses with positive comments and creates reward pathways that can affect mental well-being.

“When we are scrolling endlessly, past photos, and captions and lights, there's also constant ads and notifications that are popping up that are competing for your attention," Otero said. "That actually shrinks parts of the brain that are associated with maintaining concentration.”

Otero explained that the constant use of social media alters a child's brain structure and function. This impact extends to attention spans, memory processes, and social-emotional responses, she said, all factors interconnected through neuroplasticity.

"The companies that make these devices, and design these platforms, want us online as much as possible," Otero said.

Because of this, when it comes to parents trying to limit screen time, she said "it feels like an uphill battle in many cases."

Who can help teens and children mitigate online risks?

During a West Hartford school roundtable this week, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut pushed to approve the Online Kids Safety Act. Students shared how they worry about the long-term effects of using social media, starting when they were just 11 years old. Some students voiced concerns about impacts on physical appearance, peer pressure, bullying and eating disorders.

Online safety is an issue that resonates with many Latino parents. A 2020 study by Pew Research Center shows Hispanic parents are more likely than white parents to believe the government and tech companies should do more to protect kids online.

West Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Paul Vicinus said parents are concerned about children using social media and digital devices starting in elementary school.

“We have conversations with families about this. We host workshops as early as elementary school in fifth grade, but certainly through middle school," Vicinus said. "[We're] trying to support parents with an understanding of social media and engage them in this kind of a world that really is different for many of us than what we grew up with."

A recent study by Dr. Amrit Kumar Jha, assistant professor of psychology at Lalit Narayan Mithila University in India, indicates that younger generations that have grown up online are at high risk. Generation Alpha, born in and after 2010, has rapidly impacted consumerism and technology trends, shaping decisions and influencing their millennial parents' priorities. While these children display tech-savvy traits, Jha found they are susceptible to psychosocial and developmental concerns like the development of narcissism, ambiguity intolerance, impulsivity, attention-seeking and risk-taking behavior.

Otero acknowledges parents' daunting task in navigating the online world and stresses the importance of setting boundaries, encouraging cautious navigation, considering age-appropriate devices, and having clear guidelines for a healthy online environment.

“Parents need to remember that we are the adults, especially for elementary-aged children," she said. "You have to set these boundaries and house rules about what your little one can do or not do.”

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa is a journalist with extensive experience in Latino communities' politics, social issues, and culture. She founded Boceto Media, a digital Spanish-language newspaper based in Connecticut. Maricarmen holds a Bachelor's in Social Work from Springfield College, and a Master's in Journalism and Media Production from Sacred Heart University. As a reporter for Connecticut Public, she is dedicated to delivering accurate and informative coverage of the Hispanic/Latino population in the region. Maricarmen is an experienced and passionate journalist who strives to bring a voice to the stories of her community.