Trying to parent a kid with an internet-connected device can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. Just as quickly as you’ve set boundaries around their smartphone or tablet use, they present an urgent request to play a popular game or message with friends on a new app.
Of course, the companies trying to win young customers design their digital products to be as engaging as possible, with experiences and algorithms that pull users in for as long as possible. That means you’re left trying to determine how your child’s internet use competes with — or complements — aspects of their well-being like sleep, physical activity, and socialization.
Parents know the horror stories told about children with unfettered or unsupervised access to the internet. They encountered bullies, spent sleepless nights playing video games, or lost themselves in anonymous message boards riddled with hate speech and conspiracy theories. More commonly, they make social comparisons about perfectly curated images that play into their feelings of insecurity — and that can be terrible for their mental health.
Desperate for a quick, effective solution, caregivers might delay getting their tween or teen a smartphone, make use of parental controls on devices and apps, severely limit how and when their child can go online, or try all of those things. But a new report published by the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University found that parents might be overlooking a critical factor in this complex equation: their own parenting style.
Parental controls are such a scam
The report’s co-authors conducted a survey of 1,231 adolescents and their parents from across the U.S. (While not nationally representative, the survey used a national sample.) The researchers found that parenting style and parents’ personal technology use appears to significantly influence their child’s mental health and well-being.
That parenting style matters for a child’s mental health is no surprise. Research has long suggested that a responsive and supportive yet firm approach, known as authoritative parenting, is positively associated with a child’s self-esteem, optimism, and resilience, among other qualities. (Other styles include authoritarian and permissive parenting.)
In this study, the researchers indeed found that “warm, responsive, and engaged parenting” was strongly protective for teen mental health. For teens who reported the “warmest” parenting, only 13 percent reported high levels of depression. Those teens also described parental supportiveness that would, in theory, help them feel more confident about their choices. “They listen and treat me as an equal instead of assuming I’m up to no good,” said one participant.
Of the young survey respondents in the least warm group, whose parents were less responsive and loving, 88 percent were high on depression.
But parenting style also showed up in relation to how adults used technology and its potential consequences for their children.
Depression was higher among adolescents whose parents reported greater levels of their own social media use. Of the respondents whose parents engaged with social media for more than seven hours a day, more than a third said they were depressed. The researchers found that the more parents used social media, the more likely they were to exhibit lower levels of warm parenting.
More than half of respondents said their parents demonstrated high levels of responsiveness, comfort, and understanding, and reported experiencing fond time together. But 15 percent of adolescents in the survey rarely or never experienced such behavior from their parents.
Dr. Sarah Coyne, the study’s lead researcher and associate director of BYU’s School of Family Life, said that while parents’ social media use isn’t yet causally linked to child mental health, the findings point to the possibility that some kids feel their caregivers ignore them and their needs when a device is present.
The researchers also found that when parents become overly controlling about digital media use, perhaps thanks to battles over screen time or fears over unrestricted access, it can backfire. Children whose parents imposed the most rules and restrictions reported the highest rates of depression compared to those with a less rigid approach. This, too, may reflect what research tells us about authoritarian parenting, a style that stresses obedience and punishment and has been linked to outcomes like aggression and anxiety.
The researchers’ statistical analysis controlled for variables, including gender, family structure, and age. Coyne and her fellow researchers decided to publish their findings now for the public prior to submitting them to an academic journal because of the furor surrounding teen mental health and social media following the release of the Facebook Papers. Those internal documents, shared by a former Facebook employee last fall, exposed the social media company’s internal research on the negative mental health effects experienced by some young users on the platform.
Coyne said her team’s research persuaded her to adjust her own approach to social and digital media use with her five children, who range from ages five to 18. Instead of imposing restrictions out of fear, she’s tried to emphasize talking to her children about what they’re seeing, and encouraging them to practice compassion for themselves and others when they start to make negative social comparisons. Coyne also tries to spend her screen time actively using social media in positive ways, like congratulating someone instead of passively scrolling or getting involved in heated exchanges.
“I’d be very thoughtful about the types of interactions that you model for your own kids,” says Coyne.
If you’re a parent struggling with your mental health, or you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected] You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.