MediaSmarts: Dealing with digital stress

By Matthew Johnson
October 7, 2016

Like their mobile devices, today’s youth are expected by their peers to be “always on” — and worry about what’s happening when they’re not. Even more than in their offline lives, they are constantly comparing themselves with their peers and subject to social pressure. It’s easy to forget that our social network feeds aren’t reality: just like movie directors, we all pick and choose exactly the moments and images that communicate the story we want to tell.

With this comes a pressure to make it look as though they are constantly having fun, and to paper over any problems they’re dealing with: almost half of young people say they’ve altered photos they posted to make it look like they were having more fun.1 They also feel pressure to present an ideal version of themselves, their lives, and their bodies in social media, which can cause stress by making youth feel insecure in comparison not just to their peers, but to the idealized selves they’ve created.

Using digital media can affect mental health in other ways as well: One-third of Canadian students who have cellphones sleep with them in the room to make sure they don’t miss anything that’s happening online, which is almost certain to have an impact on the quality of their sleep and their mental health as a result.2 What can make this worse is that many youth also turn to social media to relieve stress: Research suggests that girls, in particular, seek comfort from social media when they are anxious and worried,3 and boys may retreat into excessive game playing.

In recognition of the important role of networked technologies in children’s mental health, when MediaSmarts developed our K-12 digital literacy framework, we included digital health as one of its key aspects. Digital media affect our health in many ways: the need to maintain our life balance and to manage screen time; to handle identity and sexuality issues; to deal with body image issues; to recognize and maintain healthy relationships; and to manage our mental well-being. Because we’ve integrated digital health as a key element of the framework, we can teach children the importance of balancing our online and offline lives starting in the earliest grades with our lesson Finding Balance in Our Digital Lives (K to 3), help students in grades 4 to 8 to understand how digital media affects how we see ourselves with lessons like Avatars and Body Image and Put Your Best Face Forward, and teach teenagers lifelong skills in managing all of the pressures of online life in lessons like Dealing With Digital Stress. With the arrival of on-demand streaming TV, portable devices like tablets and alternate reality games like Pokémon Go, it’s urgent that youth start to learn how to manage the stresses of their digital lives early and keep learning throughout their school careers.

1 Gamble, Livia. “Children editing ‘selfies’ in pursuit of online approval,”, August 31, 2015.

2 Steeves, Valerie. (2014). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online. Ottawa: MediaSmarts.

3 Weale, Sally. “Teens’ night-time use of social media ‘risks harming mental health’.” The Guardian, September 11, 2015.

Matthew Johnson is the Director of Education at MediaSmarts.

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