Internet use, life in social networks, screen time, online addiction, mental health and family life; threatened by social networks and the Internet. The solution lies in the family and in education, European expert in education, psychological and spiritual maturity

Young people threatened by social networks and Internet

Expert in youth education explains, from his daily experience, how to improve mental health  in a world of screens.  

Chema Camean (Vanallinna Hariduskolleegium, Tallinn)

I have been working as a teacher for almost 20 years and have noticed that, in the last 10 years, children and young people experience more frequently mental health problems, writes Josemaria (Chema) Camean, director of the Old Town College High School. 

Is there a way to explain the increase in mental health problems in young people so that we could help them avoid or cope with these symptoms?

Perhaps one of the answers -certainly not the only one- lies in the "encapsulation" of young people and their families, fueled by the inundation of information technologies, the side effects of which seem worrying.

Internet use, life in social networks, screen time, online addiction, mental health and family life are important topics that I study and discuss at school with my students. Recently, I asked them about Internet use and the answers were somewhat worrying: "Our parents don't realize how much time we spend on our phones and how strong the addiction can be: we lose our ability to communicate in real life."

According to the EU Kids Online survey (2018), 28% of Estonian young respondents said they spend around 4-5 hours online during school days. On their days off, they spend online even more time.

"There is something in our lives that parents often don't understand. They don't always fully understand the level of violence and self-esteem issues involved in online life," wrote one of my students. But do we actually understand that?

No age limit to Internet use?

We don't let children smoke, drink alcohol, drive, let alone consume addictive substances. Why? Because they are dangerous to their health. Their body and personality is still developing. But what about access to social networks - aren't we rushing it? Shouldn't we first make it sure the devices are safe and beneficial? Or perhaps we tend to believe the dogma that technological evolution is necessarily good.

Young people themselves bring this issue to our attention, as when they wrote to me at school, "The sooner you give a child access to the Internet, to smartphones, the sooner their world will be turned upside down." "They're entering a world they're not ready for!"

Sean Parker, former president of Facebook, recently admitted that social networks are deliberately designed to exploit vulnerability in human psychology. He explained that, in order to our attention, it is necessary to get our brains to release some amount of dopamine regularly enough, through "likes" or comments on a photo or just a new post. In other words, it's a business model built on addiction. And to our concern, he replied that only God knows what it does to our children's brains.

But, only God knows what Internet does?

Much research has already been done on the dangerous effects of early and/or excessive use of smart devices on children's development, concentration, memory, intellectual capacity, desire and ability to communicate, self-control, control of emotions: the pillars of human structure.

In a conversation about human relationships, Hanna asked me, "Chema, what happens in my family that when we are in front of the television, on the computer or on the phone, we get angry so easily?" "At home, no one asks me how I'm doing, because I have maximum grades on my electronic grade´s sheet. But I am very unhappy."

The breakdown of the marital bond or relationship poses the deepest damage to the heart of a child or young person.

Family relationships are, without a doubt, an indispensable foundation for the development of a child's or adolescent's personality, conscience, affectivity, sociability, character; they are also necessary for academic success and inner peace; in short, for a happy life. Can we look at ourselves in the mirror and say, with certainty, that the time we spend in front of screens is not damaging our family relationships? Or is it that gadgets and social networks have hijacked our family? More screens, less dialogue. Less dialogue, less eyes for others and less understanding.

- "Hannes, do your parents get along?"

- "Well, let's just say... they don't get along much. They are always on their computer or on their phone, in their own world. At least they don't fight."

We encapsulate ourselves in a digital word. And that doesn't do us any good.

Working with young people for 20 years has confirmed for me, in practice, what used to be theory. The rupture of a marital and family bond or relationship causes the most profound wound to the heart of a child or teenager. We can try to anesthetize this pain. But do we solve it that way? What if, instead, we consider renewing, strengthening, preserving marital and family ties? Because practice has also confirmed that, despite problems, accidents and mistakes, everything is fine with children as long as everything is fine between mom and dad! But that's another topic, although closely related to the digital avalanche and suffocation.

Kids need support and understanding in digital technology and in life.

Language makes us human. To develop verbal skills, a child doesn't need videos or mobile apps, but simply to be talked to, to be asked to pronounce words, to be encouraged to name objects and organize his or her responses; to be told stories and also invited to read. Psychological research has shown that learning in personal contact is 50% more effective than learning through the screen. Children need to be talked to. Young people need to be listened to. So do adults and the elderly.

Concentration. Without the capacity to concentrate, it is impossible to structure thoughts around an object. The ability to concentrate, that is, to focus the mind and senses on an object, allows us to explore, understand, relate, reflect, ponder, create and also pray. Experts in the field of computer science and computer culture, such as Cal Newport, known for his books and lectures, warn us that excessive consumption of audiovisual content, and in particular life on social networks (Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, etc.), reduce our ability to concentrate and maintain attention on a single activity. Consequently, they reduce our ability to understand, create, observe, reflect, etc.

Health and sleep. We are witnessing today a generation of "badly sleeping" children and young people. Screens are not responsible for sedentary lifestyles or lack of quality sleep. It is true, they foster it. But the responsibility lies with us, the adults. The problem is that, as we know, we do not sleep just to rest. We sleep because there are tasks that our brain cannot undertake when we are active. Sleep is necessary so that the brain can devote itself to organizing and root our knowledge and skills, to do “the maintenance work".

Many will claim that the time spent on information technologies and social networks has made today's children "faster, able to multitask, moving nimbly from one thing to another." However, has the human brain evolved so fast and has it been already demonstrated? And what do research tell us?

The activities for which children use the Internet have changed somewhat over time. While in 2010, 85% of Estonian children used the Internet mainly for homework, in 2018, 67% used it for that purpose, at least once a week. Entertainment activities have become more important for kids: watching videos, listening to music, etc.

To witness, that it is precisely big computer companies who try to convince us of this "potential and usefulness", arouse many questions in us. Or who do organize those smartphone campaigns at Christmas and the beginning of each school year? Sates are also an excellent market for these companies, with their belief –or pretending to believe- that smartphones, tablets and smart screens in the classrooms will make the educational revolution.

Andreas Schleicher, the father of the PISA tests, has said, "Ensuring that all children acquire knowledge of basic language and mathematics seems far more useful, in creating equal conditions in our digital world, than expanding access to, and funding, high-tech devices and services." Technology is useful, necessary - no doubt! But first and foremost essential, indispensable, are committed parents; well-prepared and well-paid teachers, who inspire with their competence and example; decent classrooms and buildings that "pull up". This is where the educational revolution begins

"We need your example!"

What would you want your parents to know? "Don't constantly accuse us of being on our phones or computers too much! We know it's not right. We don't like our addiction. But we can't overcome it alone, the pressure is too strong." Almost half of Estonian children have tried to spend less time on the Internet, but say they can't do it. Twelve percent of the children face this problem at least once a week. However, the majority tries less often.

The kids' call sums it up in one sentence: "We need your example!".

It's worth stopping for a moment to think about our children's and teen´s use of smart devices - and screens -, access to networks, time spent online, life on social media… It is also worth thinking on everything that remains undone, undiscovered, unrealized, when we drown and suffocate in the digital world.

But, as in everything, we need to start with ourselves. Let's inspire children and teens with our example! Let young people see that it is worth living the real life! With little, or big effort. With understanding and patience. Let us gradually fill our time with valuable activities that we may have lost because of the computer, the TV and the telephone. We will be more able to talk, discuss, apologize, sleep, play sports, play an instrument, draw, paint, dance, sing, go to theater classes and, of course… to read!

And able to experience one of the best things in life: we are not alone!

Josemaría (Chema) Camean, Principal of the Gymnasium of the Old Town College of Education (Tallin, Estonia):

Josemaría (Chema) Camean, Director of the Old Town College Gymnasium, Tallinn, Estonia, European Expert in youth training explains from his experience the damages of networks and the Internet, Psychological and spiritual maturity

Original article in Estonian