As children return to school, their parents focus on two issues: the impact of social media and the internet on children’s lives.
According to the University of Michigan Health CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Survey of Child Health, more than half of parents rank mental health issues as the number one health concern in their children and adolescents.
Overall, mental health and use of technology topped the top ten list of parents concerned about child health issues in the United States this year, surpassing childhood obesity, which parents considered a decade ago classified as the greatest health problem in children.
“Parents still view issues that directly affect physical health, including unhealthy diet and obesity, as important health issues in their children. But these have been overtaken by concerns about mental health, social media and screen time,” said Mott Poll co-director and Mott pediatrician Susan Woolford, MD, MPH.
Two-thirds of parents are concerned about the increased amount of time their children spend on devices, including total screen time and social media use, ranking 1st and 2nd on this year’s list of health concerns, according to the nationwide representative survey children .
“Children use digital devices and social media from a young age, and parents may struggle to adequately monitor usage to prevent negative impacts on safety, self-esteem, socializing, and habits that affect sleep and other areas of health could,” said Woolford.
Previous reports suggest that screen time has become a growing concern for parents during the pandemic. Woolford encourages parents to regularly assess their children’s use of technology and consider limiting its use if they notice signs of unhealthy interactions or behavior. Certain social media and device settings can also help protect children.
Mental and emotional health problems are in the foreground.
The survey results, based on 2,099 responses collected in February, also show parents’ continued concerns about their children’s mental health. The majority of parents consider depression, suicide, stress, anxiety and related issues like bullying to be major problems.
And nearly half of parents expressed concern about the lack of mental health services. “The mismatch between the growing number of young people with mental health problems and limited access to mental health services has serious implications for children’s well-being,” Woolford said.
Parents also shared a high level of concern about school violence, which may be due to direct experience of school shootings or fights, as well as media coverage of such events, Woolford says.
She added that changes in the school environment, such as metal detectors, armed guards and locked doors, as well as active target practice, could remind children and parents of the potential for violence at school. Parents may struggle to manage their own stress and anxiety while trying to calm their children.
“Parents may want to have regular conversations with their child about how safe they feel at school and what they’ve heard about violent incidents,” Woolford said. “They should tailor the information to their child’s age and avoid sharing graphic details while providing reassurance about their school’s safety procedures.”
Parents in low-income households were more likely to view their children’s health issues as a major concern, including depression and suicide, bullying, violence at school, unsafe neighborhoods, alcohol and drugs, smoking and e-cigarettes, teenage pregnancy and sexual activity, child abuse, etc. Neglect , parental stress, discrimination, COVID and health risks from pollution.
Parents in middle- and high-income households are now more likely to rank excessive device and social media use as a significant problem.
“Differences in how parents view children’s health challenges may stem from their everyday experiences of dealing with environmental issues, such as unsafe neighborhoods, as well as discrimination that children from low-income families may experience more often,” Woolford said.
Concerns about a greater number of child health problems may be reflected in this group’s more frequent reports of parental stress as a major concern, Woolford added.
But parents of all income groups rated other issues similarly, including unhealthy diets, obesity, healthcare costs and a lack of mental health services.
Obesity (48 percent), firearms/weapon injuries (47 percent), lack of mental health care (47 percent), poverty (45 percent), alcohol use/drug use (44 percent) fall just outside the top ten childhood health problems. Child abuse/neglect (42 percent), followed by unequal access to health care (35 percent), parental stress (35 percent), inaccurate/misleading health information (31 percent), teenage pregnancy/sexual activity (31 percent), discrimination (31 percent), unsafe neighborhoods (30 percent), gay/gender (LGBTQ) issues (29 percent), and health risks from polluted water and air (23 percent).
At the bottom of the list: vaccine safety (16 percent), over-committed parents/parents who do too much (13 percent), and COVID (12 percent).
“Today’s school-age children have seen dramatic changes in classroom environments, technology norms and increasing mental health issues,” Woolford said.
“Parents should work with schools, mentors and their child’s healthcare providers to address both current and emerging health issues. They should also have regular conversations with their children and young people to encourage them to voice any concerns they may have, both physical and emotional.”