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Clinical Psychologist: Social Media Harming Youth Mental Health

Dr. Matt Buckman, executive director and clinical psychologist at the Stress & Trauma Treatment Centers in Illinois, says a decline in interpersonal interactions among kids can lead to mental health problems.

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(TNS) — In a world increasingly dominated by technology, where we interact more often with screens than people, is it any wonder that the mental health of youth who thrive on interpersonal interaction is declining?

Dr. Matt Buckman, executive director and clinical psychologist at the Stress & Trauma Treatment Centers in Southern Illinois has real-world experience treating youth with mental health issues.

"I have seen technology help some youth and hurt others. Many individuals have developed addictions to media and even more have grown a reliance on media to the detriment of real-world relationships and connections to their local community and the people right in front of them," Buckman said.

Buckman serves in various part-time leadership and consultative roles for regional and statewide initiatives. He is the Principal Investigator of the Southern Illinois Resiliency Project. Co-Principal Investigator of the IL HEALS (Helping Everyone Access Linked Systems) Demonstration Site Project and Early Childhood System of Care Project under Egyptian Health Department, the Bullying Prevention/Trauma Responsive Schools initiative and the Trauma Based Behavioral Health Fellowship at SIU's School of Medicine. He also serves as the Southern Illinois Managing Program Partner for Lurie Children's Hospital's statewide Resilience Education to Advance Community Healing (REACH) initiative.

Buckman says that the increase of dependence on devices and the decrease of in-person social interactions and meaningful connections with others has contributed to increased mental health issues among youth. "Relationships and connections with individuals and groups of others has been found to be one of the most powerful protective factors that can reduce the likelihood of developing a mental health disorder," Buckman said.

According to the CDC, children spend almost eight hours a day in front of a screen just for entertainment. That comes to about half of their waking lives in front of a screen. As a consequence, a false world may be set up in the child's mind at the fault of 21st century media.

"Youth are more susceptible to the influence of the media. Spending more time with characters within media than those in real life may cause youth to idolize or even model the thoughts, feelings, and actions of characters within media programs," Buckman said.

Though playing pretend and imagining oneself as a superhero or a princess is part of the norm for children, when media portray characters of an other than virtuous nature, children who emulate them could suffer. "Youth may not realize that these individuals are playing a role that does not represent a healthy lifestyle and does not represent the actor's values or beliefs. I have seen many youth try to emulate these characters and then find themselves getting hurt or in trouble," Buckman said.

It stands to reason that if children watch programs portraying unhealthy lifestyles, they may develop unhealthy mental attitudes.

"I have seen many youth go two directions. I have seen youth become desensitized to dangerous and antisocial beliefs and actions that influence their mental health through their thoughts and core beliefs about themselves, the world, and others. I have also seen youth become sensitized to the perception of danger due to the stories and information heard through the media. These youth can become consumed by their fears," Buckman said.

Many factors go into determining mental balance in youth, which media may be displacing and disturbing, such as an in-person family and community life.

"All of us have the potential for our mental health to be positive or negative. My experience has taught me that youth have lost many of the resiliency factors that our families and communities once had. Some of these are a caring adult, positive role model, one best friend, spiritual beliefs, extracurricular activities, connection with the community, and more," Buckman said, adding that there is a growing tendency to seek the easy way out in entertainment over activities which are meaningful and full of purpose. "Technology and media are often avoidance strategies to escape, and avoidance and fear are the fuel to many mental health challenges."

Modern life can be very stressful with the hustle and bustle of an ever accelerating world. Media dependence becomes a coping strategy for families and youth, said Buckman. It is just easier to let your child be passively entertained and let them slip off into a "Digital Never-Never Land" instead of growing up and living in this world with all its hills and valleys, ups and downs.

Still, as families strive to make the necessary changes to a more healthy lifestyle, perhaps through adopting a family media plan, Buckman says that media itself is a coping strategy which families should not be deprived of until a healthy substitute is put into place.

"Many families and youth use media to cope with their current stressors. And until we are able to give them more adaptive coping strategies, we cannot take away these strategies," Buckman said.

Wherever parents and children may find themselves in their dependency on media, there must be a plan in place moving forward to better mental health, and an idea of what a mentally healthy child looks like. Buckman recommends the Search Institute, which identifies the 40 developmental assets that mentally healthy and happy youth have.

"In regards to the media, I hope that families intentionally and plan-fully decide what goes into their child's development. Typically, what we put into a child, we will get out of a child. So, I want to know what media my child is consuming and that they are not learning more from the media than they are from me and other positive adults in their lives," Buckman said.

©2023 The Southern Illinoisan, Ill. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.