The Digital World: A Silent Pandemic

By Anjum Khan, MA, PMP, PMI-ACP

Long before COVID-19, the world was struck by another pandemic that affects people’s social, emotional, and physical well-being: TheDigital World. A result of rapid advancement in technology and globalization, the digital world has been a silent pandemic for the past two decades and defines how we live today. Everything, from the workplace environment to schools and homes, has been “infiltrated and transformed”1 by the Internet and digital technologies. The greatest impact has been on children and youth: from their upbringing to their schooling and playgrounds, the “i-kids”1 experience growing, learning, and lifestyles never known before. And this has brought many challenges.

1. Growing: Child Development and Upbringing

By far the most significant challenge is how children are growing up. Children go through cognitive, emotional, physical, and social developmental milestones which allow them to function productively as they reach adulthood (e.g., talking, walking, etc.).2 To attain these foundational growing blocks, children have certain needs that must be met. However, the majority of i-kids are exposed to some form of digital technology from birth, often replacing traditional forms of upbringing that facilitate meeting these needs (e.g., simply playing outside).1,2,3 From mini-tv’s in cars to smartphones and other devices that entertain and engage everyone (including babies and preschoolers), the i-kids are literally growing up in a digital world. This has serious consequences on child development. Reports are showing a correlation between increased ‘screen-time’ and increased levels of: (1) psychological disorders (e.g., stress, mood and anxiety issues); (2) poor physical health (e.g., lack of sleep, poor dietary habits, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease); (3) impaired cognitive and personality development (e.g., difficulty learning and focusing, narcissism); and (4) risk in privacy and safety (e.g., identity theft, cyberbullying, child abuse, exposure to sexual exploitation, trafficking, and other illegal content).1,2,3,4

2. Learning: Cognitive and Academic Impact

Education plays an important role in society, contributing to many circumstances as an adult (e.g., socioeconomic status). Achieving academic skills is correlated with healthy cognitive abilities.1,2 However, increased time in front of a screen is leading to poor academic performance. There is an increase in cognitive developmental issues that is affecting children’s ability to learn, remember, and focus, such as: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); lack of proper levels of imagination, creativity, and reasoning (especially in children); and inability to differentiate between the real world and digital world.1,2,3

3. Lifestyles: Child Safety and Social Media

The digital environment, particularly Social Media, has intensified many traditional real-world safety issues and introduced some unprecedented challenges.2 According to UNICEF, “smartphones are fueling a ‘bedroom culture’ …” wherein, children, and especially adolescents and youth, prefer to be ‘left alone’ when using their devices. This fosters isolation and inability to handle face-to-face relationships, creating a social dilemma.2 Rather than connecting outside to play or do other extracurricular activities, i-kids text each other or go online for gaming or social media sessions. So much personal information is willingly or unwittingly shared online that child privacy and safety, once largely taken for granted when inside your home, is no longer guaranteed. Access to personal data, webcam views into the bedroom, child abuse and exploitation, and exposure to sexual and other illegal content—and even suicidal ideation, are all a very critical risk.2,4 Bullying may not stop in the school; it is highly likely to follow a child into his/her home—and be even more harsh and humiliating through social media.2,4 Considering that 1 in 3 internet users around the world are children and adolescents under 18, and 71% of youth (ages 15-24) are all connected online,2 safety and privacy for children and youth are a grave challenge.

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ADDRESSING SOCIAL MEDIA CHALLENGES IN NEVADA: NOSP’S RESPONSE AND RECOMMENDATIONS

By Richard Egan, Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention (NOSP)

Based on reports from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other studies about the negative impact of social media on mental health, NOSP started Connectiveness Matters Program in 2019. It addresses balancing human contact with on-line presence. NOSP is increasing education and training, and using awareness messages, in order to address the role of social media on mental health and suicidal ideation. The CDC report highlights Connectedness as a key protective factor in improving mental health and preventing suicide.5 NOSP’s goal is to reduce suicides through collaborative initiatives which promote healthy living. Remember social media can have positive aspects also: being able to stay connected with family/friends, collaborating with others who have similar interests, finding support groups, being able to share other passions, and exploring/expressing oneself creatively. When you have the unbalanced effect, it can interfere with sleep, family, school, work, and activities. We need a well-balanced mental state. Some recommendations to achieve this include:

Stay connected: have strong, positive relationships with others (family, friends, community), and frequent social contact for balance. This helps prevent social isolation, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts. In youth, connectedness fosters feelings of belonging, sense of identity and personal worth, and offers support systems.5

• Create family rules and guidelines: place computer/device in a shared space to ease monitoring (especially for younger children); limit time online (enforce breaks), set online behavior expectations (e.g., respect others online, verify facts before sharing, unfollow/report harmful posts/sites), balance in-person interaction (e.g., encourage other activities outside of social media).4

• Put children first in digital policies: Policies need to ensure that platform providers are also liable to help ensure safe and secure digital environments, and support law enforcement. A recent testimony in Congress highlighted the lack of safeguards in Facebook and other social media platforms, which are not only contributing to negative effects on users’ mental health (particularly children and youth), but also influencing cultural and socio-political conflict.6

We all need to work together to ensure a safe and healthy environment (real and digital) for our children and youth.

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Conclusion

Digitalized connectivity is increasingly becoming a sharp double-edged sword. On one hand, it offers a wider platform of learning and educational opportunities (especially to poor and disabled children); on the other hand, it also provides increased risk to child development, safety, privacy, and well-being. For years, the attitude towards the harmful impact of the Internet and digital technology to society, especially children, has been like that of a doctor prescribing a medication and saying, ‘there are some negative side effects, but the benefits outweigh them…’ But just as patients taking drugs with harmful side effects are monitored, we need to monitor the use of the internet and digital environment that our children today spend almost all their time in. “The best security is an adult Being There, Being Aware and Being the Parent. The more knowledgeable you are as a parent about what your computer, or your child, is doing, the better able you are to create a safe and secure environment…”4

REFERENCES:

1. Burns, T. and F. Gottschalk (eds.). “Educating 21st Century Children: Emotional Well-being in the Digital Age”. 2019. Educational Research and Innovation, OECD Publishing, Paris. From https://doi.org/10.1787/b7f33425-en

2. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “Children in a Digital World.” The State of the World’s Children 2017 Summary Report. From https://www.unicef.org/media/48601/file

3. Penn State Psych 424 Blog. “Experiencing the Problems of the Digital Age.” From https://sites.psu.edu/aspsy/2018/10/21/experiencing-the-problems-of-the-digital-age/

4. Settles, Doris. Understanding i-Kids. 2011. Pelican Publishing Company: Gretna.

5. CDC. “Preventing Suicide through Connectedness.” From https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/asap_suicide_issue3-a.pdf

6. “Facebook whistleblower tells Congress social network is 'accountable to no one'.” Oct 5, 2021. From https://www.nbcnews.com

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