In the last three years, suicide rates in the state of California for 15- to 19-year-olds have increased by more than a third. Research has shown one-in-four Los Angeles County middle school students have contemplated suicide, leading some Southern California (SoCal) community programs and volunteer centers to take action. What research is turning up — social media addiction is a contributing factor.
The Volunteer Center South Bay-Harbor-Long Beach has always been involved with the youth of the Southern California community. This nonprofit focuses on providing outreach and resources for the community, especially for children, teens and their families. Their newest focus is mental health, specifically how screen time is breaking down face-to-face communication and the balance youth and families so desperately need.
The organization didn’t initially focus on mental health. Instead, it provided families with community resources and volunteer opportunities. After three years of research and focus groups, they concluded the best way to help was to look at how screen time impacts mental health. This led to developing new programs, including a space where teens could be vulnerable and feel safe, without the modern pressures around academics, test-taking and extracurriculars.
The Volunteer Center also updated its mission to: Encourage and support social and emotional wellness for youth and families in our community. “Data shows we’re checking our phones every six minutes,” President/CEO Sara Myers tells Parentology, “That means many youths feel their parents aren’t giving them the attention they need.”
A conclusion the program has drawn, “Being aware of their own habits and putting down their phones is important,” Myers says.
Bringing science into the discussion, Myers continues, “They’ve done studies and the more screen time the less empathy, so our two main outcomes are building resilience and empathy.”
The Torrance Unified School District has also taken note of the recent increase in middle and high school students suffering from mental illness. They’ve reported a substantial amount of students asking for help with mental health and committed to implementing mental health counseling and awareness throughout the district.
One way the school district is working on spreading awareness is through a showing of the documentary “Like” about social media use and its effects on mental health. These showings — for parents and students — invite families to start conversations about mental health and smartphone addiction.
Torrance Unified also requires every high school in its district to have a mental health expert on staff full-time. When the program was first tested at a single local high school with only two days a week of access to mental health professionals, all the time-slots filled up within the first month.
For district middle schools a mental health expert must be on-site at least two days a week to assist guidance counselors.
It may feel like mental health issues are inevitable in a world where there’s constant exposure to all the bad things that are happening across the globe, coupled with the lack of empathy that excessive screen time leads to. “We can’t get rid of screens all together but we are able to educate people on its harmful effects on mental health,” says Myers, “This is the catalyst that’s hopefully going to make society break down those stigmas and talk openly about emotions.”
Screen Time Focus of SoCal Youth Mental Health Program: Sources
Daily Breeze: Mental Health Focus of New Youth Program in Torrance and Long Beach
Daily Breeze: New Health Report for California Shows 34% Increase in Teen Suicide and 29% Raise in Childcare Costs
The Volunteer Center: Resources