Being disconnected can hurt teen self-esteem more than heavy internet use

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Posted at 12:59 PM, Nov 10, 2022

DENVER, Colo. — You may want to rethink being too strict with your kids’ screen time because being online could help boost their self-confidence. New research from a team at Michigan State University found students who were more connected online had higher self-esteem and spent more time in person with friends and family.

Miana Bryant experienced the power of online connection herself. She’s seen the good and bad of social media, but overall, she found positivity and community through being online. It’s been an integral part of her journey to healing her own mental health.

“I was originally diagnosed with major depressive disorder,” said Bryant. “It definitely kind of set me to have the symptoms of checking out mentally, not really wanting to interact with people and not wanting to go to class, having no appetite.”

As a college student, Bryant felt detached from her peers and from herself, but she was able to get on the right track—by connecting to friends with similar struggles.

“We kind of started a group chat just to check on each other, which then turned into meetings every other week, which then just slowly developed into an organization,” said Bryant.

Bryant now runs a nonprofit called The Mental Elephant Inc. It’s an online mental health resource for young people struggling with self-esteem.

“Our mission is definitely to provide awareness, services and resources to people that need them,” said Bryant.

She’s found connecting with others online helped her mend her mental health.

“For me, personally, being connected online allowed me to kind of connect better with other students and other kids that I didn't necessarily know and try to kind of be able to build that bond and necessarily get the information out,” said Bryant.

Now, Michigan State University professor and researcher Keith Hampton has data to back up what Bryant has felt through a new study.

“We argue inherently disconnection is more problematic for social isolation than time you spend on screen,” said Hampton.

Hampton surveyed teens and young people who didn’t have internet access either because they lived in rural communities, or their parents restricted their screen time. He found that young people with less internet access had worse self-esteem than those who used the internet heavily.

“These technologies, whether it's social media or video games, are just deeply ingrained into how young people play, how they communicate, and young people who are, you know, not able to engage in those activities suffer serious consequences related to self-esteem,” said Hampton.

“It prevents kids from being able to learn and grasp concepts on their own, and it kind of limits them to only their parents’ world view,” said Bryant, of young people with limited internet access.

That restriction can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health struggles. Students lose more when they miss out on information and collaboration that happens online.

Hampton said expanding internet access to rural communities and making sure young people in urban communities have internet access on a computer, not just a phone, will help our young people have better self-esteem.

“We're finding the young people who spend more time on screens are actually spending more time coordinating other activities and involved in in-person activities with family and friends,” said Hampton. “For about every hour that we found young people spend on social media, they spend about 21 extra minutes with friends and about six extra minutes with family members.”

For Bryant, she hopes other teens and their parents will recognize the positive power of connecting online and use that to build better health for years to come.

“It's definitely been a journey, but a good one, because I feel like with my own personal issues, I've been able to turn it into something that can help others recognize their personal issues and be able to get help the same way I was able to get help,” said Bryant.

Both Hampton and Bryant recognize the negative power of being online, so they encourage parents and teens to talk about what young people are using the internet for instead of restricting access to it altogether.

For the complete study from Michigan State University, click HERE.

For resources from The Mental Elephant, click HERE.