Navigating children’s and teens’ mental health, privacy in pandemic

In response to nationwide school closures, ramped-up use of online schooling, and rising stress levels among families working and learning under one roof, Consumer Action invited four experts in children’s privacy and psychology to speak at its timely Nov. 17 webinar: “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents, and How to Protect Children’s Privacy Online.” A recording of the free webinar can be viewed here.

Published: Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Speakers included Jamie D. Aten, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (and author of such articles as “How to talk to your kids about COVID 19”); Ariel Fox Johnson, Common Sense Media’s senior counsel for policy and privacy; Dr. A. Paul Kurkjian, M.D., a California-based board-certified adult and child psychiatrist specializing in anxiety and mood disorders; and Consumer Reports privacy researcher Bill Fitzgerald.

Dr. Aten began the webinar by explaining that, even before the pandemic struck, teens and children were reporting record-breaking levels of isolation and loneliness, in no small part due to the prevalence of social media. (Dr. Kurkjian reiterated this point later in the webinar when he cited the significant increases in suicide among teens who spent five hours or more online per day, versus one hour.)

Despite experiencing pandemic-induced stressors themselves, parents are instrumental in helping their kids cope, Dr. Aten reassured listeners—as long as those parents make sure that they’re engaging in self-care. “If we’re feeling highly anxious or extremely depressed or just really overwhelmed, our children, in many ways, are like a sponge, and they’re going to pick up on that and absorb that stress from us.”

Parents should be honest with their children—to a point—outlining the precautions we all need to take (e.g., wear masks) in age-appropriate terms, while reassuring them that caregivers and schools are doing everything possible to keep them safe. In difficult times, adults are often quick to point out negative or troubling behavior, Dr. Aten explained, but it’s critical that parents spend more time than ever pointing out their children’s character strengths and good coping skills.

A major way to protect children is to limit and monitor their media exposure. Aten recommended parents read his organization’s free report “Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Events,” since it also contains useful tips on how to talk about online safety steps with children (e.g., never talk to strangers). Providing children with normalcy and routine (including continuity of learning, if possible), as well as regular family check-ins when parents can talk about controlling online activities, is also important.

Common Sense Media’s Fox Johnson pointed out that privacy should be a family value, and cautioned that parents, too, must be careful about what they share online with regard to both their children and their children’s classmates. Adults also bear the responsibility of learning about available parental controls to minimize distractions and data collection, including in schools, via the many new, untested data-sucking apps designed to ascertain children’s “health.” And parents must be aware of whether any classes are being recorded or monitored.

“Some of the more popular services [in play now] require a student to do a video scan of the room that they’re sitting and working in before they take an exam…exposing other family members to surveillance,” Consumer Reports’ Fitzgerald explained.

Parents can learn more about their child’s educational platforms by asking school administrators questions such as “Who reviewed the privacy and security practices of the vendor you’re using?” and “Are the apps that you’re telling students to download peer-reviewed and evidence driven?”

When it comes to navigating this brave new world, sometimes the best solution doesn’t come from technology, as Fox Johnson pointed out, but from limiting our use of it and not expecting tech to be a “magic bullet” solution. This is particularly true since the federal laws designed to protect children’s privacy are woefully outdated and inadequate, especially when it comes to online vendors collecting and sharing users’ data for commercial purposes.

“Don’t expect privacy tools to do much,” Fitzgerald cautioned. “The human conversations we have with people about technology are often our most effective tools in making sure that we use it well and [in] establishing norms around privacy.”

Earlier this year, when it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would profoundly affect our lives, raising daunting challenges for consumers across the country, Consumer Action launched our COVID-19 Educational Project, made possible with major funding from Wells Fargo and additional support from AT&T, Bank of America, Capital One, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Square.

The project includes a library of fact sheets and webinars, covering everything from your housing rights if you or your family members contract COVID or face eviction from job losses, to estate planning in the event of your death, as well as a regularly updated resource guide to help you deal with the challenges of pandemic-related job loss, housing and food insecurity, health care, debt repayment and more.




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