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Teens must be more resilient in an online world

Building the resilience of teenagers so they are better equipped to deal with online encounters is the best path forward to keeping them safe and thriving in the modern digital world, according to one psychology expert.

Speaking earlier this week at the Australian Psychological Society College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists Conference in Hobart, Dr Jodie Lodge argued that shielding young people from online content is not the answer to keeping them safe.

Dr Lodge – who recently conducted a review of national and international research on the impact of the digital world on young people’s mental health – said that over-protection of young people can actually have deleterious consequences rather than positive ones.

This is especially pertinent in light of findings from her research, including that the average Australian teenager now spends more than 40 hours per week using screen-based devices, is using five or more social media channels, and 75 per cent of high school kids take a phone to school.

“Shielding young people from online content can have the unintended negative consequence of undermining a teenager’s resilience and constructive engagement online. It’s also been found to increase the likelihood of repeated problematic online behaviour,” she advised.

“We need to teach young people to recognise problems with issues such as bullying or grooming and to feel confident in confiding in parents and trusted adults.”

Young people need to be able to take age-appropriate risks online to learn how to navigate the digital world, with all of its challenges, she continued, with her research showing that the average Australian teenager spends more than 40 hours a week using screen-based devices and is using five or more social media channels.

It also showed that more than two hours of daily social media use is associated with poorer self-rating of mental health, higher levels of psychological distress and poorer sleep quality.

The more time young people spend online and the wider the range of social media use, Dr Lodge posited, the greater the likelihood that they will encounter risks to their wellbeing.

However, it is not possible to stop social media being part of young people’s lives, she ceded.

“Social media is key for young people to explore their identities during adolescence, so we want to help them build a balance around its use.”

Parenting is a crucial factor in encouraging digital resilience in young people, and balancing restriction and supervision with engagement and communication are considered among the best approaches for parents, she noted.

“Parents should spend time exploring online with their children. They need to increase their own online knowledge and encourage their children to question the accuracy of the information found online,” Dr Lodge said.

“We also need to educate kids through the school curriculum. We need to be teaching young people how to protect themselves and others online, understand and deal with challenging content, balance their lives and build empathy and responsibility, both online and offline.”

Dr Lodge concluded by noting that young people will need extra help to navigate the risks they encounter online, and should seek help from a mental health professional, especially if they are vulnerable because of existing psychological difficulties.

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