Experts have articulated a worrying trend in the mental health of youths in recent years. The number of Singaporeans aged between 16 and 30 who sought help from the Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT) of the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) rose by close to 200% from 550 cases in 2015 to 1,580 in 2017. Male teenage suicide was at its highest since 1991, with a 170% increase from the year before (Samaritans of Singapore). Experts suspect that these figures are only the tip of the iceberg, since only about 30% of young adults seek professional help for mental health issues.
What could be threatening the mental health of youths at a time when we are free from war, blessed with abundant resources and more connected than ever due to technological advancements?
Ironically, excessive phone usage is a real issue that parents and youths face today. A study by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in 2017 found that 12-year-olds spend an average of 46 hours a week on their phones.
Not only will excessive use of smartphone affect our vision and sleep, it can also affect the state of mental health of youths. Addiction to social media will impair a teen’s ability to communicate and connect with people face-to-face. This impersonal means of communication prevents the creation of genuine support systems and may cause youths to feel isolated.
You may wonder why youths are so dependent on their phones despite being aware of the potential pitfalls. Well, smartphones can be especially useful to teenagers struggling with self-consciousness, self-esteem and social anxiety in face-to-face encounters—all of which are normal developmental pains of adolescence. The popularity of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter indirectly brought about by the invention and ownership of smartphones means that teenagers can connect with others through the veil of anonymity, creating a sense of security in which many teenagers thrive. For some, the use of social media platforms has transformative effects: some teenagers come out of their shells and become YouTube or TikTok sensations—right under their parents’ noses!
Another issue with smartphone use is cyberbullying. A Google survey released in 2019 found that three-quarters of the children and teenagers in Singapore reported that they had been bullied online, and almost none of the victims had told their parents about their painful experiences.
The home environment is where our adolescents should get most of their support from. A cohesive and supportive home base is their psychological shelter from the challenges of navigating an increasingly complex social environment.
What can families do to enhance the psychological well-being of our youths?
Research has shown that it can be as simple as spending time together through family rituals. Family rituals can range from routine activities such as weekend dinners, doing chores together, game nights, engaging in sports together, and hunting down the best cafes in town. Such family rituals help to reduce excessive phone usage through strengthening parent-child bonds and increasing self-esteem. This, in effect, reduces a reliance on digital devices.
Technology is not all that bad. A novel way to bond with the family has emerged out of quarantine where families cope with difficult times by doing TikTok challenges together. When used mindfully, technology not only bridges the generational gap, but can be used as a catalyst for families to bond.
Moderation is key. Like everything else we do in life, being cognisant of the potential dangers and its usage allows us to fully maximize the benefits that technology offers.
What exactly are family rituals?
Family rituals are events or activities that are symbolic and are repeated over time by members of the family. They create opportunities for communication, instill a sense of belonging, and help members understand what it means to be part of the family. The time to bond as a family may seem intuitive and perhaps even underestimated.
Yet, the benefits of family rituals are surprisingly profound and address current societal challenges faced by youths. These rituals help adolescents develop social and emotional skills to successfully navigate relationships outside the family. They also cultivate a sense of stability in youths, allowing them to view others as friendly and encouraging them to be sociable, in turn, making them less prone to depression and anxiety, and building resilience against these potential stresses.
Perhaps the most defining feature of family rituals is that it promotes a sense of cohesiveness. The more families spend time together engaging in purposeful interactions, the more they gain meaning from it; the greater their emotional investment, the closer they feel to one another. It is this heightened sense of cohesion that enhances the well-being of adolescents.
The need to incite change within the family is more pressing than ever today given the pandemic and the effect it has on us, emotionally. Day-to-day family life with all its routines may become dull and functional in nature. By structuring shared time, we are relearning how to be fully present with each other. Let’s reclaim time for our families, our children and ourselves.
This article is contributed by Society Against Family Violence (SAFV).
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