Excessive screen time a factor in loneliness, mental health risks for youth

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts on the impact of isolation and loneliness.

Michele Wentzel can tell when one of her three children is troubled.

“They kind of isolate themselves and are very moody,” she said. “I can tell something’s going on.”

Wentzel keeps the lines of communication open with her children in their Youngwood household, so she didn’t have to search the messages on her eldest daughter’s phone before the girl, now 14, revealed she was having trouble with some friends on her soccer team.

“A lot of it was coming through text messages,” Wentzel said. “We had to block some children and have discussions with some parents and coaches. Once there was some distance and there wasn’t any opportunity for those children to get in touch with my daughter, we saw a difference in her mood.”

Bullying is one of the ill effects young people can experience when communicating with remote devices, a type of interaction that became more prominent for all ages with the arrival of the covid-19 pandemic and social distancing concerns in 2020.

That enforced reliance on virtual connections brought to light the negative impacts of embracing screen time too extensively.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy touched upon that issue in a recent advisory, bringing awareness to an epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the country.

Overindulging in social media

One study cited by Murthy found that people who used social media for two hours or more daily were more than twice as likely to report feeling socially isolated than those who were on such platforms for less than 30 minutes per day.

That’s a concern for Patti Lewis, director of behavioral health for Westmoreland County-based Excela Health, now part of the Independence Health System.

“People are always on their phones and their devices, and they are not actually verbally communicating with another person.” Lewis said. “I’ve seen people sit side by side and, instead of speaking to each other, they text each other.

“I think that contributes to some of the feelings of isolation and loneliness. You don’t hear the intonation in people’s voices when you’re just reading text on a screen.

Laurie Barnett Levine, CEO of Greensburg-based Mental Health America of Southwestern PA, expressed concern about the addictive attraction some people have to social media.

“For some people, that becomes their life, not socializing face-to-face with people,” she said. To make matters worse, “I think covid has really done a number on our population in terms of socialization. We’ve relied more on social media. It keeps us connected in some ways but disconnected in other ways.”

“Anything that can provide you an immediate response can be addictive, and social media absolutely is that,” said Heather McLean, outreach coordinator for Mental Health America of Southwestern PA. “People are looking to see how many likes they got, or they want to see what other people are saying. It’s not just younger people. If that’s all you’re doing, that’s not good.”

“You can order everything online and never leave your house if you don’t want to,” Lewis said. “You don’t have to interact in person with anyone. Some people can be so far into it that they don’t even realize they are lonely.

“Some people have gone down that rabbit hole because it’s just easier for them. They don’t realize that it may be loneliness, it may be depression.”

Losing touch with peers

Isolation and related behavioral health challenges are growing concerns for today’s youth, both nationally and regionally.

The loneliness epidemic is hitting young people, ages 15 to 24, particularly hard. That age group has reported a 70% drop in time spent with friends, according to Murthy.

“More and more younger people are pretty isolated,” said clinical psychologist Lisa McCay, who supervises the outpatient therapy department of the Family Counseling Center of Armstrong County. “It used to be that people in their teens and 20s who were in school or the working population were connected to people by virtue of those activities. Now, more are doing online schooling and remote work.”

While such virtual interactions are better than none, McCay said, “It’s not the same as the (in-person) connections you make in everyday life.”

“I think the pandemic brought a lot of this to light,” Lewis said. “When you’re not able to communicate effectively with someone how you’re feeling, I think that’s what’s led to a lot of problems.”

A few years before the pandemic, the Armstrong County counseling center began placing therapists among 13 schools, to service student mental health needs in the Armstrong, Leechburg Area and Apollo-Ridge districts. In those settings, McCay said, “There are several hundred kids we see over the course of a year.”

Sadness on the rise

Drawing upon data from a Youth Risk Behavior Survey of U.S. high school students, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly three in five (57%) U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, up from 36% in 2011.

Boys with sadness or hopelessness increased from 21% to 29% during the same period. Nearly 1 in 3 (30%) teen girls seriously considered attempting suicide — up nearly 60% from a decade earlier.

“We are seeing a much higher rate of teens and young adults with complex mental health challenges that impact their daily functioning,” said Dr. Robert Marc Davis, medical director of Wesley Family Services, which offers behavioral health and social service programs for all age groups in Westmoreland County and across Western Pennsylvania.

Problems that are growing among youth, Davis said, include substance use, self-harm and suicidal thoughts or ideas.

Since the start of the pandemic, referrals have increased to a high school in Whitehall Borough where Wesley provides mental health treatment for kids whose needs can’t be met in a regular public school setting.

“We have observed kids who are not as confident in social interactions as they were a few years ago,” said Ryan Turner, the school’s clinical manager. “I hear about kids who play online games for hours and hours instead of going out with their friends. They are not developing social skills or helping to manage their anxiety.

“I’ve seen some kids who weigh much more than they did before the pandemic, and I think that is in relation to isolation.”

Good, bad results of logging on

Wentzel has seen positive as well as negative impacts of online communications among young people in her dual roles of mother and juvenile probation officer for Westmoreland County.

Some juvenile offenders are referred to Wentzel for a course she teaches on cyberbullying and internet safety.

At home, she’s witnessed how her youngest daughter, now 10, benefited from using the internet for online classes at Hempfield Area School District during the early stages of the pandemic.

“It took away the personal face-to-face contact with her teacher, but it also has given her a readiness for using the technology she needs to learn,” Wentzel said. “She is now able in fourth grade to send an email and Google search for appropriate things to do research.”

Wentzel and her husband haven’t permitted their children to have cellphones until they entered middle school, and they require that their kids reveal their passwords as a condition for establishing accounts on such social media platforms as Snapchat and Instagram.

They take advantage of settings through their internet provider that allow them to monitor their children’s screen time and they instruct them not to reveal their personal information online.

“I like to think we’re pretty astute about taking care of our kids’ mental health and supervising them so they’re using the internet safely,” said Wentzel. “We probably did allow them to have more freedom during the pandemic because we were concerned about them missing out on interactions with their friends.

“I’m not being nosy or a helicopter mom. It’s about keeping my kids safe.”

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff by email at jhimler@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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