September 29, 2016

Stress and Teens: Does Media Play a Role?

Hansa Bhargava MD FAAP
Staff Physician, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta
Medical Editor, WebMD

Pediatricians are seeing more and more teens suffering from stress. Whether they are complaining of it or having somatic symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches, it seems that stress and anxiety are on the rise. We know that over scheduling, homework, and the pressures of getting into college can contribute to this. But can media also affect it? Is screen time and media a stressor or a remedy for stress?
In a recent WebMD survey published in their Teens and Stress report, 54% of teens were stressed according to parents. Interestingly, 40% of parents turned to the screen  for family stress relief while 58% of teens did. Social media and texting was used as stress relief by almost half the teens. This is on the heels of the Common Sense Media survey reporting that US teens were using media for 9 hours a day. Other recent reports have shown that 94% of teens with mobile devices are online daily with many online constantly.
So it seems that stress is on the rise and media use is on the rise. Although there may not be a direct relationship, some real issues impact stress and anxiety. Consider this: 23 % of teens report cyberbullying, especially girls. There have been reports of “Facebook depression” and loneliness, as kids who aren’t in social media conversations may feel left out. Other negative consequences can also have an impact: many teens are in front of a screen late at night or ‘sleep text’, both of which can contribute to lack of sleep, which in turn can decrease focus and potentially cause irritability and depression. And last but certainly not least, what about the time media consumes? 
Time spent on media is time often not spent communicating with family. Lately, when I’ve gone into a restaurant, I’ve observed that as soon as a family sits down, everyone pulls out a mobile device. No one is really talking. So even the short amount of time not doing homework, playing soccer, or at school is being compromised. Psychologists, community leaders and experts have long reported that family time can contribute to less depression, less anxiety, better academic performance and generally happier kids. But what if that family time is on media?? 
As the AAP reviews our screen time recommendations,  I feel that we, as pediatricians should continue to advise parents about basic principles. 

Parents need to lay down some parameters about when and how media is used. Media is a centerpiece of teens’ lives and is not going away, but just as we don’t give our kids a set of keys to our car and say “just drive”, we need to enforce appropriate media use. And  good modeling is also critical: parents need to put down their mobile devices and simply communicate with their kids. Old fashioned parenting and just talking to your kids can build the foundation to a less stressful childhood and hopefully a happier life. 

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