Social connectedness is key priority for Office of Children’s Mental Health to address crisis

7 Investigates: Supporting Students
Published: May. 25, 2023 at 10:30 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - After analyzing all of the data and elements impacting kids’ mental well-being, the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health landed on fostering social connectedness as a key area to make the most change.

“Kids in Wisconsin are not making and keeping friends as well as kids in another state,” Linda Hall, the director listed as one of the elements they considered when creating priorities. “That’s really important, because that, you know, not being able to make relationships interferes with your ability to make a relationship with your teacher.”

“All of us need a sense of belonging, but particularly kids who are developing, they lost that,” Heidi Siebert, the director of Pupil Services and Special Education at the Antigo School District said about students during the pandemic.

However, Siebert notes the overall mental wellness of many students was declining even before the pandemic. She believes social media and screen time have a large part to play in that. Data and research reflect those impacts too.

The most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey notes daily screen time continues to increase. The National Institute of Health found that pre-pandemic, people ages 8-12 spent about five hours a day looking at a screen, while teens spent up to nine hours a day. During the height of the pandemic, the average increased to nearly eight hours of screen time for kids ages 12-13, not including schoolwork. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 78% of teens do not get enough sleep. The blue light from these screens does not help with getting or staying asleep either.

While there are benefits to social media and some screen time, like that some teens feel more accepted, that they have support through tough times, that they can express creativity, and connect with their friends’ lives, the U.S. Surgeon General is warning that there is a lack of evidence to say social media is safe for kids. Conversely, there is mounting evidence that is more harmful to children.

“The platforms also exacerbated feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem for some youth,” Dr. Vivek Murthy said during a Senate hearing about youth mental health in Feb. 2022. “They’ve also contributed to a bombardment of messages both via traditional and social media that undermined this generation’s sense of self-worth. Messages that tell the kids with greater frequency and volume than ever before that they are not good-looking enough, popular enough, smart enough, rich enough, simply not enough.”

Students see the impacts on themselves and their peers too.

”I feel like a lot of people aren’t honest with their struggles online, because they want to hide that part of themselves,” Liza Mueller, a junior at Wausau West High School said. “Yeah, they could be posting a pic, and they’re on a vacation and look like they’re having a great time, but you don’t know what’s really going through their head.”

“It’s a lot of self-loathing, you’re just kind of like, it’s almost like an impulse type of thing,” Bridger Lemmon described. He is a junior at Merrill High School. “It’s like an addictive substance, you just have to have it, you just like going for this small dopamine boost. It really puts a blockade from the real world and what you should be focusing on.”

“It’s a time in early adolescence where kids are developing their identity their sense of self. And the skewed environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children,” Murthy said in an interview with CNN.

Generation Z and Alpha have grown up in a world, unlike previous generations when it comes to technology, digital connectedness, and access to information. Murthy noted in a presentation with the National Association of Counties when he was growing up, if he wanted to get away from negative information, he just turned off the television. If something embarrassing happened at school, he got made fun of by 20 people until they forgot about it a few days later. Now, hundreds or thousands of people can see and comment on those embarrassing moments through social media, and kids have endless access to information about big problems previous generations have left them to solve.

Kids who are awake at night with their phones may be seeking out support. The Crisis Text Line (741-741) reviewed its data and the surveys some of its users answered to understand how and when young people are using the service. It determined about three-quarters of the people who texted the crisis line were under the age of 25; four out of five were female. Most kids that reach out for help did so between midnight and 6 a.m.

The top five stressors mentioned are depression or sadness, stress or anxiety, relationships, suicide, and isolation. Young people discussed overthinking, being online, and exhaustion as sources of stress and anxiety.

Music was the top coping mechanism teens mentioned. However, some screen activities, like video games or watching television were also mentioned as ways they coped with stress.

“Our kids face a lot of struggles in our community,” Erin Jacobson, the school social worker and mental health navigator at D.C. Everest Area School District ureged. “We have to validate those struggles what they’re going through, but then give them the skills to keep moving forward.”

Again, many of these struggles were happening before the pandemic; then it hit.

”Social media is definitely not very healthy,” DCE Senior High senior, Jaylee Thomas admitted, “but it was the only-- it was our last resort, I guess. Like, we didn’t have anywhere to go at school because it wasn’t an option.”

“As adults going through a pandemic, we had never experienced that either,” Siebert noted. “And so trying to help them navigate developmentally, and then knowing that how much do you give access online? How much do you pull back? We weren’t prepared, but now we’re seeing the ramifications: Kids’ inability to communicate face to face, being able to solve problems, face to face.”

That is why the OCMH chose social connectedness as a focus: it is something everyone can help create. Whether it is getting kids involved in clubs like Raise Your Voice, which directly addresses students’ reliance on social media and difficulty with person-to-person conversations, building relationships with kids in your life, or getting involved with organizations that build connections like the Big Brothers Big Sisters.