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Mental health experts discussed the impact of social media and supportive relationships with adults on teenage mental health at a Harvard Graduate School of Education panel Tuesday.
The panelists included Linda Charmaraman, director of the Youth, Media, and Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College; Lisa K. Damour, author and clinical psychologist; Alisha R. Moreland-Capuia, Harvard Medical School assistant professor; and HGSE senior lecturer Richard Weissbourd.
The forum is the most recent installment of HGSE’s Askwith Education Forum series, which invites panelists to speak on topics that affect schools and students of all ages.
HGSE senior lecturer Josephine M. Kim, who moderated the panel, opened the conversation by providing a definition of mental health.
“Mental health, defined by the World Health Organization, is a state of well-being in which the individual realizes their own abilities, they can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community,” Kim said.
Charmaraman said it is important to understand the role of social media in adolescent mental health.
“This is the reality of 2023 — that it’s an ever pervasive digital landscape. Adolescents are growing up in an ecosystem that is a blurred boundary between real life and digital life,” Charmaraman said.
Weissbourd — who is also the director of Making Caring Common, an HGSE project that aims to help parents and educators raise respectful children — said social media and cellphone use contribute to teenage mental health concerns.
“I don’t understand why kids can have cellphones in schools. I just think we should ban cellphones from schools,” Weissbourd said. “Am I missing something?”
Moreland-Capuia, the founder and director of the Institute for Trauma-Informed Systems Change at McLean Hospital, said there is a purpose for cellphones in schools, citing parental concerns about school shootings.
“We have to appreciate our history, our destiny, but be in our reality. And the reality is that people don’t feel safe, and the phone, in some cases, helps parents — whether it’s an illusion or not — feel a little bit safer,” Moreland-Capuia said.
Excessive use of technology can also affect teen wellness by disrupting regular sleep patterns, Damour said.
“What gets in the way of sleep for teens? Social media or digital technology in the bedroom overnight,” Damour said. “They should just not be there. There’s no reason for it.”
One strategy for mitigating declining mental health in teens is through cultivating relationships with caring adults, according to Damour and Weissbourd.
“We know what supports adolescent mental health, and it is strong relationships with caring adults,” Damour said.
Adults that can fill this role include teachers, coaches, school secretaries, and custodians, according to Weissbourd.
“We have to create mentor-rich environments,” Weissbourd said.
HGSE student Morgan K. Downing, who attended the forum, said the panel’s lessons about working toward strong mental health in teens can be applied to students of all ages.
“My area of expertise is more in early childhood, but I know that early childhood students eventually become teenagers,” Downing said. “So it’s like, ‘How can I foster what I learned here to then support the earlier kids?’”
Sari Saint-Hilaire, another HGSE student and forum attendee, said she hopes audience members leave the forum with a more open-minded perspective on mental health.
“The spirit of learning, the spirit of going to research something you didn’t know before, the spirit of admitting that you were wrong about something — just not being afraid to be human, as they said, I think that’s very important,” Saint-Hilaire said.
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