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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Recently, I attended a full day conference and workshop on suicide prevention, sponsored by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and the New Jersey Traumatic Loss Coalition. The annual conference (co-sponsored by the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP), focuses specifically on suicide prevention among our youth in New Jersey.

The emphasis of the conference this year was on the use of social media by our youth. So, of course, I assumed it was going to be a full day of bashing social media, instructing us (teachers and therapists) to discourage the use of social media and the dangers and evils of social media. To my surprise, it was not the case. In fact, it was the opposite. The Child Mind Institute, a national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders, recently issued a report, entitled “Children’s Mental Health Report: Social Media, Gaming and Mental Health,” (childmind.org/report). Here are some of the statistics they shared:

1% to 10% of children and adolescents have excessive and impairing online behavior;

81% of teens say social media makes them feel more connected to their peers;

Autistic teens are five times more likely to watch TV or play games than use social media or messaging;

Teens who spend three hours a day on devices are more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep;

72% of teens feel compelled to immediately respond to texts, social posts and notifications;

In 2012, 49% of teens rated their favorite way to communicate with friends as “in person,” contrasted with only 32% in 2018.

In its report, the Child Mind Institute noted a number of findings.

1) The reality of photo sharing, social networks and multiplayer gaming is both a crisis and an opportunity.

2) Kids can’t get hooked on games or phones like drugs, but its use can be impairing,

3) The Child Mind Institute’s Healthy Brain Network study found a connection between PIU (problematic internet use) and ADHD.

4) Screens don’t cause ADHD, but the link between attention problems and fast-paced games is real.

5) Online communities can both contribute to depression or help young people cope.

6) For the significant number of adolescents who already struggle with maintaining a healthy body image, social media can push dangerous ideas.

7) Adolescents with ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) often turn to technology to cope with the social world

8) And, risks of social media persist even when adolescents “unplug” at night.

The Child Mind Institute added a supplement to this report, entitled “Talking to Tweens and Teens about their online lives,” which is available online. Among the suggestions made were the following seven strategies for managing social media, which are actually helpful for social media users of any age:

1) Plan in advance how much time you’d like to budget for each social media platform.

2) Notice when you reach for your phone.

3) Take some of those social media apps off your phone.

4) Move the icons for social media apps off your homepage.

5) Turn off the notifications.

6) Learn how much time you’re actually using on social media.

7) Consider a “social media fast.”

In September 2019, the Bergen County heads of school issued a “Joint Statement on Device Usage.” The full-page statement set forth four primary recommendations based on research and best practices:

1 - Recommendations on what age to give a child their own smart phone (not before sixth grade);

2 - What restrictions and meaningful controls parents must institute and implement;

3 - Preventing the overuse and the need to make children disconnect; and lastly,

4 - Changing the parents’ behavior and modeling for their children.

In last week’s “New Jersey Jewish News,” Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school at JKHA/RKYHS in Essex County, wrote an article with similar recommendations.

Much of the schools’ concerns center around protection of the students from sexual predators, bullying from peers and from misuse around mental health issues. It is that last issue that the December 5 conference addressed.

The presenter, Dr. Jonathan B. Singer, LCSW, is the president of the American Association of Suicidology, and co-author of the book “Suicide in Schools: A Practitioners Guide to Multi-level Prevention, Assessment, Intervention and Postvention.” Dr. Singer addressed questions, including:

Where is technology in the efforts to reduce suicide?

How can we utilize and measure the effectiveness of suicide prevention apps?

What is the role of social media and safety?

How can we think about the relationship between technology and the future of youth suicide prevention?

The Pew Research Center researched what U.S. teens say about following social media. Here’s what they found:

81% of teens feel more connected to their friends, while 45% feel overwhelmed by all of the drama there.

69% of teens think it helps them interact with a more diverse group of people, while 43% feel pressure to only post content that makes them look good to others.

68% of teens feel as if they have people who will support them through tough times, while 37% feel pressure to post only content that will get a lot of likes and comments.

Dr. Singer and other researchers, specifically looking at the use of social media and mental health issues, found that as a general rule, smart phones are not bad! In fact, they believe that since this is the way teens (and tweens) are communicating with their peers nowadays, there needs to be an increased focus in the prevention field of mental health needs.. According to Dr. Singer, more and more sites on social media are trying to help users going through a difficult time, through outreach, link to help sites and recommendations to get support.

So, the news is not all bad. But again, take the recommendations being given to parents – by the Bergen County Schools, Rabbi Rubin and by the Child Mind Institute. As parents, we have a responsibility to guide our children correctly, as well as to model appropriate behaviors to them. And the last message from me - never let your guard down!


Eta Levenson is married and lives in West Orange. Trained as a social worker at Hebrew University, she has worked as a hospital social worker in Israel and in New York, as a clinical social worker at JFS of Bergen County, as assistant director at NJCD/Yachad, and as a teacher at Rutgers University School of Social Work. After the death of their son, Eric, by suicide in 2016, the Levenson family created the Eric Eliezer Levenson Foundation for Hope. Through the Foundation, they fund and support programs focusing on mental health awareness, the de-stigmatization of mental health challenges and suicide prevention. She can be reached at [email protected]