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Digital Mental Health: It’s A Family Affair

Young people’s digital use is in the headlines at the moment. But it is adults who face the challenge of monitoring children’s time on social media, and who have a responsibility to model healthy behaviour. In the second of a week-long series of blogs to mark Children’s Mental Health Week, Dr Fiona Pienaar draws our attention to the Family Media Use Plan, and suggests parents – and practitioners – get involved in thinking about digital mental health.

You’ve probably noticed all the articles in the media this week about the negative impact of social media on young people’s mental health. But we shouldn’t lose sight of its relevance to our adult clients. “At what age can children be safely exposed to digital media?” and “How much time should children and adolescents be allowed to spend on digital media” – these are probably two of the questions that I get asked most frequently by adults. I find it interesting that there are never any questions about their own use of technology, as if this phenomenon is something that we should only consider in relation to our youngest citizens.

Yet, it can be very challenging for parents and professionals to find clear guidelines about digital mental health. Some of the worlds’ foremost cyberpsychologists (psychologists who study how humans interact with technology and how their interactions impact on their behaviour) have acknowledged that they are in a continuous race with the technological changes that occur so rapidly that it makes it difficult to study them.

This has, no doubt, contributed to the lack of official guidance in the UK up to this point. But in response to growing concerns about links to mental health problems, the government will shortly be releasing official guidelines on media use. The Chief Medical Officer has indicated the guidelines will include recommendations about regular physical breaks from anything digital, and avoiding social media before bedtime.

For some time, the guidelines developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have set the standard for guidance for parents and professionals. At the heart of their policy is a focus on adults, including the challenges that they face in monitoring not only their children’s media use, but their own as well. The critical need for adults to model healthy behaviour is key to their guidance. They use phrases such as ‘appropriate balance’, ‘setting boundaries’, ‘consistent rules’, ‘positive role models’, and ‘open family communication’ – all helpful for parents and professionals considering how to encourage healthy interactions with digital media.

But perhaps the most effective aspect of the AAP guidance is the recommendation that each family develops a personalised Family Media Use Plan so that technology is used thoughtfully and appropriately in a manner that enhances daily life rather than distracting from it. This should apply to all members of the family with everyone contributing to the agreement, taking ages and stages of development into consideration.

Given the recognised importance of adults’ role modelling appropriate and healthy behaviour, Family Media Use Plans that include parents and carers are likely to be more effective than those that only focus on children and adolescents. So, for example, if one of the rules in a Plan is that everyone leaves their devices to charge in the kitchen overnight so that the whole family gets an uninterrupted nights’ sleep, this should (in an ideal world) apply to all adults as well. Equally, if there are agreements on set times when everyone is device-free, such as at all mealtimes, this should apply to everyone.

There are useful example templates of Family Media Use Plans available on the internet (e.g. Family Agreement Template), but not all of them include the adults. It is probably far more useful to take some of the known guidelines (age appropriateness, time limits, meal times, night time use, etc) into consideration, use common sense, add in the rules (and consequences!) agreed on by all, and emerge with a plan that is personal to, and relevant for, each family.

As a practitioner, how about trying a Family Media Use Plan yourself so that, when you’re supporting your clients and thinking about digital mental health, you’re talking from direct experience?

Developing Minds: Mental Health, Children & Young People Conference, with Dan Siegel, was held at the QE11 Centre in central London on Feb 8 2019. A digital recording of the conference can be purchased by clicking here.

#DevelopingMindsConference #ChildrensMentalHealthWeek


Dr Fiona Pienaar

Fiona is Chief Clinical Officer for Mental Health Innovations (MHI) with responsibility for ensuring high standards of clinical direction and practice. Prior to her present role, Fiona was Director of Clinical Services at Place2Be. Fiona has a background of over 30 years of teaching and counselling in schools, counsellor education in higher education institutes, educational and mental health resource development, academic and clinical supervision, private practice and mental health consultation, research and writing. She has a PhD in Behavioural Science from the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, a MEd in Counselling, a Professional Certificate in Coaching (Henley Business School, England) and various other counselling, teaching and special needs qualifications.

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