Morgan Stanley launched its Alliance for Children’s Mental Health (Alliance) in early 2020, leveraging the expertise of leading nonprofit organizations, including the Child Mind Institute, as well as the resources and Morgan Stanley’s reach to address the urgent and far-reaching challenges of stress, anxiety and depression in children and young adults. The COVID-19 pandemic hit soon after, leading to a substantial increase in the number of young people struggling with mental illness. The pandemic has also led to an increase in internet use, as children have been forced to attend school virtually and socialize online with friends they could no longer see in person.
How has this continued increase in screen time affected children and families, and what do parents think of the changes? To find out, Morgan Stanley sponsored a study by Alliance partner Child Mind Institute. The results showed that while there are certainly concerns among parents, there are also perceived benefits to more time spent online, including more family ties.
The first data point discovered was not surprising: Screentime is an integral part of our daily lives. A quarter (26%) of parents surveyed say they use the Internet six or more hours a day. This number rises to 37% when asked about the habits of their children. And 59% of parents said they had become more permissive about internet use during the pandemic.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have problems. According to the survey results, the vast majority of parents are aware of the risks associated with using the Internet. Three-quarters (77%) of respondents agreed that children can be addicted to the internet, and more than twice as many parents (22%) worry exclusively about their children and internet addiction as worry about drug addiction (10%). A third (34%) are also concerned about internet addiction and substance abuse.
In addition to the potential for Internet addiction, the survey found that:
- 53% of parents are concerned about online bullying
- 67% of parents are concerned about the content available to their children on the Internet; and
- 32% of parents often feel distracted by the internet when spending time with their children
About half of parents surveyed also expressed concern about the impact of internet use on cognitive, social and emotional development. That said, the majority of parents think their children can use the Internet responsibly (73%) and feel comfortable talking about Internet use with their children (82%).
Indeed, the survey shows that the general attitudes of parents tend to be optimistic about the impact of increased screen time on their families. Almost half (46%) of parents said the internet increased connectivity within their own nuclear family, while 22% of parents disagreed. An even larger group (56%) said the internet increased connectivity with their extended family. Asked specifically about the positive impact of the internet on connectivity, the majority of parents said it helped them share positive experiences and be more flexible in their ability to schedule time together.
But the study also confirms the results of previous Child Mind Institute research on increased screen time during the pandemic and its effects on children: Behaviors that parents engage in may play a role in patterns of problematic internet use (PIU) in children. Specifically, PIU patterns in parents were significantly associated with PIU patterns in their children. Additionally, researchers have found that negative parenting practices such as inconsistent discipline and poor supervision are particularly correlated with PIU in children; and that poor co-parenting (such as high levels of conflict or mistrust between co-parents) is associated with higher levels of PIU among parents and children and lower levels parents’ levels of concern about the impact of internet use. Surprisingly, the effect of parents’ PIU on their children’s Internet behavior was significant even among parents who did not report negative parenting practices. Taken together, these results suggest that a simple and potentially effective way to prevent PIU in children is for parents to examine their own Internet behaviors.
This survey shows that, in general, the average American family does not see themselves in a crisis over Internet use, but many parents have real concerns. It’s important for parents to feel confident talking to their children about the Internet, and the survey suggests several strategies they can use to encourage healthy use. Among them:
- Addressing Concerns About Internet Addiction: Be open with children about your concerns and what the data shows. PIU is associated with many negative effects. Clear parental expectations are needed to guide the child’s behavior to avoid these outcomes.
- Be honest about your own internet use: Trying to hide your screen time from your kids can encourage them to do the same. Similarly, it is important to model healthy habits – while recognizing and showing how to avoid less healthy ones. In fact, it’s a behavior you can control that potentially has a significant impact on your child’s internet usage.
- Family connection in the foreground: Responsible use of the Internet can have enormous benefits when it comes to bringing together family, including extended family. As long as common sense rules are in place, the internet can be a great way for kids to engage and connect in a positive way.
Morgan Stanley is committed to solving the children’s mental health crisis through its Children’s Mental Health Alliance. By supporting the work of the Alliance’s nonprofit partners, including essential research to identify and target solutions to issues of anxiety, depression and stress in young people, the Alliance seeks to develop innovative approaches , to have an impact and to effect systemic change.
About the survey
The survey, conducted through research firm Ipsos, reached a nationally representative population of 1,005 U.S. parents with children ages 9 to 15 and was conducted beginning July 21.st until August 17e, 2022. It asked parents about their attitudes towards internet use, family usage patterns and potential risks that may contribute to problematic internet use (PIU) in children, which is defined as internet usage habits that negatively impact their quality of life. Collaborators include Child Mind Institute researchers Michel P. Milham, MD, PhD and Giovanni Salum, MD, PhD; and Kathleen Ries Merikangas, PhD, and Kevin Conway, PhD, of the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH). (Drs. Conway and Merikangas were funded by the National Institutes of Health Intramural Research Program. This work reflects the views of the NIMH.)
The survey is the latest work from the Child Mind Institute examining the internet and associated pandemic impacts on families, work supported by Morgan Stanley. Previous research includes the Coronavirus Health and Impact Survey (CRISIS)a PIU study using Child Mind Institute’s Healthy Brain Networkand Screen time recommendations from Child Mind Institute researchers.
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