Mental Health and Well-Being Snapshot: April 2023
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A Focus on Digital Well-being
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Chat GPT Just Completed Our Homework!

Technology has rapidly transformed the way we live, learn, and communicate, and its impact on our mental health and well-being cannot be ignored. With the rise of smartphones, social media, and online gaming, children and youth are growing up in a world that is vastly different from what their parents experienced. While technology has many benefits, concerns have been raised about its potential negative impact on child and youth mental health. As parents, educators, and mental health professionals, it is crucial that we understand the ways in which technology affects the well-being of young people and take steps to promote healthy technology use. In this article, we will explore the latest research on the impact of technology on child and youth mental health, and provide practical strategies for parents, educators, and mental health professionals to support young people in navigating the digital world.

That's right, we asked ChatGPT to write that opening paragraph, and its partner AI program DALL-E created the image above. We chose to start the snapshot this way this month as an acknowledgement of the potential that Large Language and other AI models have as educational tools in the classroom, and the fact that they are already being used (for better or worse) to power therapist chat bots and other well-being focused tools as well. Read on for more information about ChatGPT as well as other innovations that are altering the ways in which we use technology and its impact on our well-being and mental health.
Technology and the Developing Brain

First, the good news...

You probably already know a thing or two about the different risks associated with too much screen time, but did you know that recent research is starting to show some positive effects of moderate amounts of video gaming?

Although there is still much to learn about the mechanisms at play, it does seem like moderate amounts of video gaming (at least with certain types of games) can increase feelings of well-being, and even help boost mood and reduce anxiety. Beyond those impacts, games can help develop life skills such as task persistence, and team communication, as well as boost cognitive functions such as spatial reasoning, spatial cognition, hand-eye coordination, and multi-level problem solving.

So, the next time your child successfully negotiates ten more minutes on their gaming console, you can relieve yourself of guilt by reminding yourself of some of this research!
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Technology and the dopamine response

Dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical produced by our brains that can reinforce pleasurable feelings. Part of its function is to help motivate us toward survival behaviours, to strive toward goals, or to focus our attention. Many everyday activities can elicit dopamine production, including eating and exercise. In similar ways, achieving goals, sensory stimulation, and social recognition all also trigger our brain to release dopamine. And it is these reward dynamics that are often at play when we interact with various forms of technology, whether video games, TikTok videos, or a Discord chat server.

Game and software developers often structure their programs to take advantage of this reward mechanism, by, for example, sending notifications when others respond to what we share online or displaying eye-catching visuals to keep us engaged. Variable reward schedules are another way developers manipulate the dopamine response - by keeping the reward unpredictable, whether through lootboxes in videogames or delaying the display of "likes" on a social media post, they ensure we repeatedly engage and re-engage with the platform as we seek out that elusive reward.  And it's not that all of these mechanisms are bad - the pleasurable, fun, connecting, and relaxing effects of videogames are part of the reason people play them, and we share things online in order to communicate with others or create community. But anyone who uses these tools should understand the very intentional way the dopamine response is manipulated through technology.

Mindfully using technology - that is, having an intention when you pick up your phone instead of habitually checking - adjusting settings to minimize the sensory stimulations built in to some apps, and balancing high dopamine activities with low dopamine activities are all ways to counteract the pull one might receive from dopamine-facilitating apps.

This article from Harvard Education explains this process in more depth, and also offers some advice about taking back control when using technology. 

High dopamine activities vs low dopamine activities

Dr. Clifford Sussman talks a lot about High Dopamine vs Low Dopamine activities, and recommends focusing on this aspect of screen use as a way to hep children and teenagers understand why taking breaks is important and to help develop adaptability and self-regulation. In this article, his approach is summed up as follows:

Dopamine is the chemical released in your brain when you do something exciting that has an instant payoff, such as playing a thrilling video game, seeing your likes on Instagram, or clicking BUY on a nice pair of shoes. We all love that tingly feeling.

“The problem comes when you‘re doing this for a really long time. Let‘s say hours or even days,” says Dr. Sussman.

Over time, the constant flow of dopamine drives a person to want to repeat the exciting activity. A residual effect is feeling bored when doing other things, including academics.  

“When kids binge all weekend on games, they will be more bored of their classes on Monday,”

Social media and the teenage brain

Although there are numerous positives that can come from online connections with others, it is important to realize the particular vulnerabilities that are present for children and youth when using social media.

Youth are at an age where social interaction is a key part of their learning about themselves and the world. With that in mind, we can see the appeal of social platforms like TikTok or Instagram. However, social media platforms often reward disingenuous sharing, instead of setting the stage for healthy substantive connection.

This is just one concern related to social media and the teenage brain (but it's not all bad!). Click the link to learn more about the ways that social media interacts with teenagers' developing brains.

Ever feel like you're losing control?

When people take issue with technology, it is often because of the controlling hold it seems to have over our attention. The Center for Humane Technology has some advice: 

Set boundaries on when you and your family will and won't use technology

Delete toxic apps that only serve to distract, or polarize, or those that you feel the compulsion to check and refresh often

Try one day per week where you disconnect completely

Turn off notifications altogether
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The above visuals were taken from research conducted by Mediasmarts looking at child and youth digital media use. MediaSmarts is a Canadian not-for-profit charitable organization for digital and media literacy. Through information and tools, they help children, youth and trusted adults develop the critical thinking skills to engage with media as active and informed digital citizens.

MediaSmarts has resources for home and school, including free lesson plans, family agreements, informational articles and videos, and games for building digital literacy skills.

Tech Conversations at Home
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Consider quality over quantity

The visual above is from Dr. Shimi Kang's book The Tech Solution. In this book, Dr. Kang emphasizes that managing time on devices is important, but paying attention to the type of media we are interacting with is just as important - healthy tech designed to help us create, connect, or care for ourselves is where we want to spend most of our technology time, while avoiding toxic technology that can be detrimental to our well-being. Watch the video below to hear Dr. Kang explain the different types of technology use and what happens in our brain when interacting with different types of technology.


Pay attention, get involved, and model positive media habits

The Canadian Pediatric Society summarizes their advice to parents in those few simple words.

Here are a few more details from their website, explaining this advice:

MANAGE screen use through plans, rules, and limits.
Make and regularly review or revise a Family Media Plan
Consider asking your child or teen to give you their phone at a certain time at the end of the day 
Be present and engaged when screens are used and, whenever possible, watch together and talk about the content.
Discourage media multitasking, especially during homework.
Learn about parental controls and privacy settings. 
Speak with children and teens about acceptable and unacceptable online behaviours.

Encourage MEANINGFUL screen use
Make sure daily routines come first: face-to-face interactions, sleep, and physical activity.
Encourage your child to watch programs that help teach, such as shows about nature, science, the arts, music or history.
Help children and teens to choose content that‘s appropriate for their age and stage.
Be a part of your children‘s media lives. For example, join in during video game play and ask about their experiences and encounters online.

MODEL healthy screen use
Review your own media habits: Plan time for hobbies, outdoor play and activities.
Never text or use headphones while driving, walking, jogging or biking.
Encourage daily “screen-free” times, especially for family meals and socializing.
Turn screens off when not in use, including background TV.
Avoid screens at least 1 hour before bedtime, and keep recreational screens out of bedrooms.

How to create a family screen-time agreement

Effective screen-time agreements consider the whole picture - How will this agreed upon time impact our sleep and overall well-being? What about our opportunities to connect as a family? They involve "no-screen" times and times for sharing with each other about screen time. And they have bottom lines around safety, with a foundation of honest discussion and a commitment to work through mistakes together.


Parents' guide to TikTok

With so many apps and technology evolving so quickly, it is easy to fall behind on the latest trends. Common Sense Media has some helpful resources to get parents up to speed.

Their guide to TikTok includes information such as: 
Can kids under 13 use TikTok?
How can you make your TikTok account private?
How can I use TikTok with my kids?
What are TikTok challenges?
Does TikTok have parental controls?
What if my kid wants to get famous on TikTok?

Click the link to read the article, or explore other parent guides here.
Classroom Connections
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Using ChatGPT in the Classroom

As much as there may be concerns around misuse of technology like ChatGPT in the classroom, embracing the technology as a tool for learning is a way to get in front of those concerns. To paraphrase another article you may have seen, much like calculators, Wikipedia, or Google searches in years before, by understanding the technology ourselves, and helping our students see the applications and limitations of the technology, we can create relevant lessons that don't deny the existence of something that is going to be a huge presence in their world.

The image above is a snippet of a larger article and infographic about ways to use ChatGPT in the classroom. Beyond some of the classroom-ready ideas above, the author also encourages teachers to use ChatGPT as a starting point for lesson planning or as a source of critical thinking prompts. There will no doubt be countless applications discovered for this and similar technology in the classroom and beyond, so at the very least we owe it to ourselves and our students to understand what it is and how it works. Check out this informational article for parents, and this one for educators from Common Sense Media as starting points to learn more.

ERASE BC: A Resource for Online Safety

ERASE BC is a hub of resources around building safe and caring school communities. This includes a section focused on cyberbullying and sextortion. It is worth a read for parents and educators concerned about online interactions, and includes general knowledge about common online risks, strategies for intervention, reporting tools for students, and links to further resources.

Digital literacy resources for the classroom

Digital literacy can help children and youth avoid stressors and exploitative scenarios online, communicate with others in healthy ways, and discern trustworthy content online. To help foster digital literacy, Common Sense Education houses a ton of free lesson plans covering a range of digital literacy topics at all grade levels (free sign-up required). Examples include evaluating your digital footprint, navigating online drama, and social media and the brain. There are also links to valuable professional development, and assessments of educational technology.

Additional Resources

Digital support tools

Technology has rapidly expanded options for access to support online. Here are a few options that are worth exploring:

Foundry Pathfinder

Sometimes figuring out which supports or services are the right fit can be a confusing process. Pathfinder tries to help with that by offering personalized suggestions for supports for youth based on answers to a few questions.

Foundry Virtual

Young people ages 12-24 and their caregivers can use the Foundry BC App to access scheduled or drop-in virtual services including counselling, peer support, medical services, substance use services, groups, employment services, and Indigenous wellness services.


BounceBack is a free skill-building program designed to help youth 13+ manage low mood, mild to moderate depression, anxiety, stress or worry. Their online program does not require any referral.

Safe Online presentation resources

Saanich School District recently hosted Merlyn Horton for a parent information evening on the topic of online safety for middle school parents. The talk was well received, and Merlyn has made some resources available to all families in the district, including anyone who may have missed the presentation.

Your Life Online is a tip and resource handout for grade 6-8 students. It includes information about permanent digital reputations, online drama and cyber abuse, sexting and sexual images online, and how apps work on our brain.

Parenting Strategies for Online Safety offers a number of tip and resource guides for parents on topics such as screen time, online social lives, gaming, online sexual curiosity, and general advice.

Get offline to build online skills

In our last snapshot focused on technology, we listed some books that help us develop important digital literacy skills, and we're revisiting those recommendations for this issue.

It's important to remember that so many of the skills that will help us navigate the online world successfully are ones that we develop in other areas of our life as well - skills such as empathy, respect for self and others, critical thinking, and social awareness and identity. 

Books are one way we can learn and develop these skills and attributes. Here are some recommendations for books that can start the conversation about digital literacy and healthy tech balance at home or in the classroom:

Doug Unplugged by Dan Yaccarino
hello! hello! by Matthew Cordell
Chloe by Peter McCarty
Blackout by John Rocco
Press Here by Herve Tullet
Unplugged: Ella Gets Her Family Back by Laura Pederson
Unplugged by Steve Anthony
Nerdy Bird Tweets by Aaron Reynolds 
Tek: The Modern Cave Boy by Patrick McDonnell
The Fabulous Friend Machine by Nick Bland
Goldilocks (A Hashtag Cautionary Tale) by Jeanne Willis
Goodnight Ipad by Ann Droyd

Looking for more? Your school's Learning Commons teacher will be able to recommend other books in your school's collection.

Understand the risks

While the internet can be a gateway to countless positive interactions and opportunities, there is also an element of risk that must be understood. Thankfully with some knowledge and a little common sense, most people will be able to navigate the various threats just fine. If you're feeling like you or the young people in your life could benefit from up-to-date information on ways to keep yourself safe online, take a look at Cybertip's resource page, which offers information and resources about sextortion, online luring, the law and intimate image sharing.

...And don't forget about SD63's Mental Wellness Hub

This site compiles both local and online mental health and wellness resources for families and educators, and is updated monthly with new resources.
SD63's Mental Wellness Hub