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Getting real about the dangers of social media and kids

By Joanne Beck


Editor's Note: This is part of a series about social media use and its effects on children. 

Thoughts and attempts of suicide, self-mutilation, depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, a lack of motivation, shame, or being the giver or receiver of bullying.

It’s a tough world out there, and children are being subjected to these things more and more, especially when social media is involved,  Daniel DePasquale says.

An unhealthy trend
"I'm seeing a lot of things that seem to track with a lot of the trends that have shown up in the research. So teenagers became daily users of social media, between about 2009 and 2012. And there's been a lot of research done since then, tracking different metrics of teen mental health. And what it shows pretty unequivocally is a significant increase in depression, mood disorders, anxiety, self-harm, and especially hospital visits, and ER visits for suicidality and self-harm. So that's obviously very concerning," he said. 

"There’s a huge spike in 2012," DePasquale said during an interview with The Batavian Thursday. "Their lives are very online. That’s not all bad; it does foster some connections, especially for districts in smaller, rural areas. Where it goes wrong are the amounts of time spent, more than two hours a day. Most of the kids I see here are spending significantly more than that. This is stunting, certainly, really important aspects of adolescent development, especially emotional development, and social development. There's a lot of that that really needs to happen in person. And these online platforms really don't, they don't replicate what that real-life interaction is."

DePasquale is a licensed social worker at Genesee County Mental Health Services in Batavia. He and colleagues Christine Faust, a licensed mental health counselor, and Deputy Mental Health Director Peter Mittiga shared their observations and experiences on why social media use reached the extent necessary to drive families to seek counseling.

For one thing, online platforms don’t represent real life, DePasquale said. Yet, when other kids post tiny snippets of their lives, it appears as though that is their world, and it can create a false comparison.

“These are middle schools and high schools, these are where kids are kind of figuring out who they are, they're grappling with their identity for learning how to read other people's emotions, and learning how to resolve conflicts," he said. "And social media really does not provide a good healthy way to learn those things. Humans are wired to compare ourselves. Kids are posting very selective parts of their lives … very curated versions.”

Of course, that also happens amongst many adults, he said; however, kids are at an already “very fraught time in their lives” and don’t need the added pressure of having to live up to an unrealistic ideal on the Internet.

Kids are mostly gravitating towards Tik Tok and Snap Chat, while Facebook is less popular with the younger crowd, he said. Another “big issue” is cyberbullying. It has become bullying of a “very different quality than what happens in person,” DePasquale said. Once it becomes posted online for all to see, it makes it hard for kids to escape it, he said, even once they leave school and go home.

More than a fun distraction
Think social media is just an innocent extracurricular, maybe a time suck but an otherwise harmless distraction for kids? They’re being referred to therapy after being sent to the hospital for a “self-harming” incident. That could mean cutting themselves or something even more lethal. Or their issues may manifest as seemingly having no motivation to do anything and depression.

In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Technology in May 2022, Ethical Leadership Professor Jonathan Haidt reported that social media is a “substantial contributor to the crisis” of increased loneliness at schools in all regions of the world.

“Correlational studies consistently show a link between heavy social media use and mood disorders, but the size of the relationship is disputed,” Haidt said. “Nearly all studies find a correlation, and it is usually curvilinear. That is, moving from no social media use to one or two hours a day is often not associated with an increase in poor mental health, but as usage rises to three or four hours a day, the increases in mental illness often become quite sharp.”

DePasquale believes that two hours a day is the maximum goal for usage, and it’s what he recommends to families. Beyond the emotional and mental health aspects of social media are other measurable effects, he said, including the lessening of kids’ coping skills and quality of sleep.

Social media requires “a level of sustained attention, a lot of rapid switching from different things,” he said.

Learning mindfulness skills to become more aware of their own thoughts will require new learning, such as being able to put the phone down, he said. All of that social media scrolling encourages the opposite.

"So they don't really facilitate, you know, the kind of sustained attention that you would need to, say, sit down and read a chapter of a book. And a lot of the skills that we want to teach our kids involve becoming aware of your thoughts, becoming aware of the negative thought patterns that tend to reinforce your depression or your anxiety," he said. "They also involve learning how to become more present, kind of mindfulness skills that we try to teach people, kids and adults, that also requires kind of a singular focus, being able to put the phone down, and become aware of your thoughts and feelings so that you can learn new ways of responding to them.

"And I'm finding it harder to teach some of those skills to kids, just because they don't have as much experience with that kind of sustained focus," he said.

Again, that addictive quality is not present just within the younger generation. Just look around, and there are many adults scrolling with their eyes fixed on the phone screen throughout the day and night. There is no actual addiction diagnosis for social media use, Mittiga said, but it certainly does have addictive properties.

Faust added that a committee in charge of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses, more commonly known as the DSM-5, will be discussing potential additions, including gaming and social media addictions. The American Psychiatric Association writes, edits, reviews and publishes the book as necessary. It was first published in 1952 and has been revised seven times since.

What does it take to get into this manual? The general consensus, Faust said, is that something falls into the addiction category when it has a drastically negative impact on someone’s life.

Faust works with all ages and specializes in children ages three and older. Even at that tender age of pre-schoolers, devices become the norm, whether it’s by watching YouTube videos, playing games on a tablet or a phone, or using the program Roblox, which allows younger kids to play a variety of games, she said.

Elementary-aged children are into Tik Tok, because “it’s silly and fun,” and Faust knows of a fourth-grader who routinely posts videos of herself on the site. A fourth-grader. Unfortunately, she gets a lot of  “bullying and shaming,” as a result, Faust said.

“There are supposed to be age restrictions on these platforms,” she said. “A lot of parents are just turning a blind eye to this, or they don’t think it’s really a problem. I think a lot of kids have free rein, or even parents try to restrict them. Kids find a way around it.”

One boy was being shamed on the school bus for not owning a phone, so he took one from home to save face.

The 'dark side' of social media use
“But the other part of it is that what I see is that it's taking this group of kids who are sort of at risk, who could kind of go either way, like, they could be healthy, or they could be drawn into, you know, more risky behaviors," she said. "So it's taking those kids that are kind of on the line, and drawing them to the, quote, unquote, dark side.”

Sites like Snap Chat suck kids in like a magnet, and they get involved in group chats, teenage girls bully and shame others, and those victims are driven into serious depression, the ones “who would never think about suicide, start to contemplate suicide,” she said.

“When kids are stressed out, they’re turning to self-harm,” DePasquale said, as he and Faust filled in the lines for each other.

“And then, like Dan said, there's definitely an increase in visits to hospitals for kids who are suicidal. Or, self-harming, cutting, like it's become normalized ... when they're stressed out, and overwhelmed," Faust said.

"They're automatically thinking about suicide as a viable option,” he added.

Behaviors seem to focus more on cutting, and for girls, it can also go towards body image issues and disordered eating, Faust said, and not so much on alcohol or drug use in younger kids. DePasquale agreed that there has been a "significant shift" associated with social media use being connected to self-harm and suicidality versus substance abuse. 

To the extent, they said, that "it's almost become normalized," Faust said.

"I hear kids that I work with talk about watching videos of people cutting themselves. Yeah. And posting it. They're cutting themselves and posting it," she said. "Whether it's to get attention or a cry for help. But yeah, it's definitely creating this sort of culture that is desensitizing."

By now, The Batavian has spoken to several school counselors and administrators for their thoughts on this topic, and these licensed mental health professionals concur that there are problems attached to the heavy use of social media by children.   

Shining some light on the subject
Some of those districts are infusing students and staff with encouragement to form committees and teams to extract the positive out of this situation and teach about/use social media for good and/or monitor its use to be at a healthy level.

Case in point: Just this week Byron-Bergen Elementary School announced that the Genesee Valley School Board Association awarded the district with the Excellence in Student Services Award for the 3rd Grade Digital Citizenship Program. This program, which is led by third-grade teacher Colleen Hardenbrook, is a year-long initiative to develop online and computer skills in the areas of digital citizenship, digital literacy, and keyboarding. All 59 third-grade students from three classrooms participate in the Digital Citizenship Program.

Each class receives 40 to 80 minutes of Digital Citizenship per week. The curriculum is provided by Common Sense Media and focuses on safety, accountability, responsibility, and respectful use of digital media. This is broken down into themes, including media balance, privacy and security, digital footprint, relationships and communication, and media literacy.

The Batavian will be publishing stories on additional measures being taken by school districts in future articles of this series.

Imposing limits is not a bad thing
As for right now, DePasquale emphasized the time limitation to no more than two hours a day as a good rule of thumb. Faust also sees a real need for limits and boundaries, she said.

“Whatever form that comes in,” she said. “Social media is not going to go away. The trick is teaching parents about limiting what platforms they’re using. What kind of parental controls do they want to use on devices,” she said. “Parents weren’t prepared. We need to backtrack. Parents need to teach their kids at three what’s appropriate.”

DePasquale also suggests providing recommendations in layers, beginning with some fundamentals, such as using the settings in your child’s smartphone and defining a limit for only two hours of use, "right at the start."

“That also needs to be coupled with close monitoring,” he said. “And kids don’t get on social media until 16.”

Other suggestions? Parents, remove all screens from your child’s bedroom, take the phone away one hour before bedtime, and be prepared to have a list of replacement activities for that time you’ve now freed up for your child by limiting the phone.

“A lot of kids are struggling, they don’t have healthy limits. They are willing to backtrack, and are welcoming those boundaries,” Faust said. “And parents have to take more action. Some kids are learning what a good friend is, and self-esteem, confidence and getting involved in healthy activities.”

If you suspect your child is struggling with a mental health issue, check in with your school counselor or call Genesee County Mental Health Services at 585-344-1421.

For more information for parents and educators, read THIS from the Center for Humane Technology.  

Top Photo Illustration. Stock photo.

After-hours crisis services extended to end of 2022

By Joanne Beck

An approved request for $55,000 to pay for after-hours mental health services for the remaining six months of this year will extend Spectrum Health and Human Services to Dec. 31.

Genesee County Legislature approved the request Wednesday as one of 11 items previously reviewed by the Ways & Means Committee earlier this month.

The county’s day treatment program was closed, and funding for that will be redirected to the after-hours, on-call mental health needs of the county, Director of Community Mental Health Services Lynda Battaglia had previously said.

The goal is to potentially use county mental health staff for the after-hours needs, however, that’s not feasible given a current staffing shortage, staff had said. At the time, Legislator Gary Maha questioned the $55,000 price tag and short-term time period.

“For six months?” he said. “That’s a lot of money.”

The services were used mostly during the pandemic, staff said.

Genesee County Legislature agreed to provide a total not to exceed $55,0000; it will be transferred out of personal services, arts and crafts, activity fees, and food and paper monies that were not expended due to the closure of the Day Treatment program earlier this year.

Spectrum Health and Human Services is based in Orchard Park. The agency’s original contract was due June 30, which has now been extended to the end of this year for crisis services.

Other approvals included:

  • To set a public hearing for 5:30 p.m. July 27 for an amended local law regarding the county’s weighted voting plans. There is also to be a public hearing at this time for a proposed operating budget for Genesee Community College's academic year 2022-23 in the amount of $37.2 million, with a sponsor share of $2,736,374. Genesee County is responsible for the sponsor share, and this reflects a $50,000 increase from the past year's share.
  • To set a temporary part-time position for the Board of Elections to assist with early voting, per election law mandates. The position has been established at a rate of $20 per hour effective June 27, and has been created due to the impending retirement of a current Democratic board clerk/machine technician. The departing employee is to be available to help train the new, part-time person. This move has a budgeted salary of $55,000, deemed “sufficient for 2022.”
  • A bid of $1,468,100 by Montante Construction for stonework at Genesee Justice, 14 West Main St., Batavia.

New interim director of mental health announced at Human Services meeting, shared services debated

By Lauren Leone

A new interim director for Genesee County Community Mental Health Services was announced Monday at the Human Services Committee meeting.

Bernadette Bergman, the agency's board president, told committee members that the resignation of Director Ellery Reaves has been accepted and Augusta Welsh will serve as interim director through July 14 while the position is advertised.

If the job cannot be filled within 60–90 days, another interim mental health director from a neighboring county will fill the gap until a permanent director is appointed.

The prospect of sharing the agency's services with another county was also debated.

The committee discussed the possibility of a mental health director serving both Genesee and Erie counties.

Legislator Gordon Dibble noted the agency has not committed to shared services, but it is looking into other counties’ practices and whether a dual-county mental health director position would meet state requirements.

Committee members resolved to keep past experiences with shared services in mind as they continue to explore their options.

Welsh told the committee that Mental Health Services is collaborating with local school districts and nonprofit organizations like GCASA to reduce patients’ treatment costs and unnecessary emergency room visits. It is also seeking additional satellite locations to provide more convenient mental health and chemical dependency appointments to clients.

Welsh said the mandated new jail, once it's built, could serve as a prospective satellite site that could help maximize psychiatry services.

Also on Monday's agenda, Office for the Aging Director Ruth Spink informed the committee of slight increases in the per-unit cost of its ARC of Genesee Orleans home-delivered meals program.

The rate per meal will increase by 30 cents for home-delivered, congregate, cold/sandwich and frozen meals because state and federal funds cannot be used to cover meal preparation expenses.

“ARC is really struggling with continuing this program," Spinks said. "I think we’ve got a commitment to get through the next two years of this, but I’m not sure if they’ll be able to continue afterward just because of the increase in food costs and the increased cost in minimum wage.”

In order to prevent the end of the meal service after 10 years of success, the Office of the Aging and ARC will consider the possibility of a cooperative meal-service agreement with community organizations.

Similar to Mental Health Services, the Office for the Aging may partner with the new jail to offset rising food prices and wages of food service workers.

Lastly, the committee was provided an overview of an eight-month program for high school students that teaches leadership skills and good decision making.

City of Batavia Youth Bureau Director Jocelyn Sikorski expressed her satisfaction with the Genesee Youth Lead program and said it has garnered positive response from participants and local school districts as the 2018–19 academic year nears its end.

This community-based leadership development program immerses students in county policymaking and administration. Participants refine their problem-solving and teamwork skills during sessions that focus on a specific topic each time, targeting issues leaders in our county deal with.

These include: agriculture, health and human services, government, law enforcement, tourism, business, emergency preparedness, arts and culture, leadership opportunities, community service, team building, and job-readiness training.

“Great feedback from the kids with every session,” Sikorski said. “We evaluated every session, so we’re looking to gear up for next year. We start recruiting probably in the next week or two, and we’ll recruit all summer and then interview the kids in the fall again.”

The next Human Services Committee meeting is at 4:30 p.m. Monday, July 15 at the Old Courthouse in Batavia.

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