Laura Berman warns parents of pandemic drug use after son's overdose. Here’s how to keep tabs on your teen's mental health

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“Teens certainly don't have the same access to their social connections during the pandemic,” one expert tells Yahoo Life. That can lead to more time on social media, which in turn can lead to more mental-health issues. But there are ways for parents to step in. (Photo: Getty Images)
“Teens certainly don't have the same access to their social connections during the pandemic,” one expert tells Yahoo Life. That can lead to more time on social media, which in turn can lead to more mental health issues. But there are ways for parents to step in. (Photo: Getty Images)

When OWN TV therapist Laura Berman shared news of her 16-year-old son’s death by accidental overdose this week, warning other parents that he had purchased fentanyl-laced Xanax on Snapchat, it likely landed with parents of teens and adolescents as a punch to the gut.

“Our son Sammy was a beautiful soul who left us way too soon,” Berman said in a statement through her husband, Samuel Chapman. “Our hearts are broken for ourselves and for all the other children that are suffering during this pandemic.”

Berman’s social media warning might’ve been a wakeup call to some parents about how accessible some drugs have become — something confirmed for Yahoo Life by a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Agency, who noted, “Drug trafficking organizations are creative and use every means available to advertise their poison, including social media,” and that the DEA had worked with social media companies so shut down some 20,000 accounts so far.

“Social media and internet-based technologies have broken down barriers, and all kinds of activities —good and bad — are much more easily accessible,” adds Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center. That’s especially true now, she says, when “most behaviors have been driven online due to COVID.”

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But beyond the threats of social media, the death of Berman’s son has been an agonizing reminder of the ways in which the pandemic has negatively affected the mental health of teens and tweens for almost a year now. A recent Harris/National 4-H Council poll, for example, found that this period has led 55 percent of teens to experience anxiety, 45 percent excessive stress and 43 percent depression, while 61 percent said the pandemic has increased their feelings of loneliness, reporting they spend 75 percent of their waking hours on screens.

“Teens certainly don’t have the same access to their social connections during the pandemic,” teenage and adolescent psychologist Barbara Greenberg tells Yahoo Life. “This leads to loneliness, feeling disconnected, FOMO and then turning to social media in an attempt to recapture connection.” And that becomes a vicious cycle, Greenberg says, as more time on social media can lead to “increased anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation,” which might then segue into substance use and abuse — as can boredom, say her clients — which are “unfortunate attempts to self-medicate.”

Rutledge notes that “sad events like Berman’s son’s death are teaching moments for parents to discuss — not lecture. When parents share their concerns in addition to expectations and boundaries, kids not only learn more, but the parents are able to see the situation from the kids’ perspective.” Kids feel a lot of pressures, and while parents can’t fix that altogether, they can provide them with an outlet, she says, and be aware of normal teen behavior. “Parents need to remember that teenagers are often drawn to risky behaviors as part of their identity development, and do not have the ability to judge risk vs. reward as they will as adults when their prefrontal cortex is fully developed.”

The question of social media — and how to monitor for safety

“Teens have been affected by the pandemic very much — missing out on different milestones and socializing with peers, and naturally, social media has been an outlet for teens to continue to feel connected,” Janine Domingues, clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, tells Yahoo Life. “And while social media can have its pros — connections around hobbies, sharing experiences with friends, finding motivation and inspiration — it also has its cons,” which include increased feelings of missing out, receiving misinformation and having access to people they otherwise wouldn’t.

Still, notes Rutledge, the research on social media use and depression and anxiety is difficult to parse out. “Screen time is a common measure, but in fact, what kids do online is a much more important factor than time alone,” adding that research also shows it’s likely that depressed people spend more time on social media to begin with. It all makes figuring out social media boundaries for your kids particularly tricky, especially now, she says, when social isolation and boredom — not to mention having to spend 24/7 with family — makes the thought of escape quite appealing for teens. It’s why restricting social connection, Rutledge believes, “is more damaging than any benefit in restricting technology.”

Opinions differ when it comes to restricting and monitoring. But the experts who spoke with Yahoo Life all agreed that what’s most important is honest communication.

“One of the best ways to mitigate trouble is to establish open lines of communication with your child and educate them about the dangers of social media use, the presence of online predators and that they should never share personal information or trust someone they really don’t know,” Danielle Roeske, executive director of Newport Academy, a teen rehab center in Bethlehem, Conn., tells Yahoo Life. “Parents can likewise be transparent in needing some degree of oversight of their teen’s online activity and establish parameters accordingly, much like they would by instilling a curfew.”

Honest communication between a parent and teen is key to keeping kids mentally healthy and out of trouble online. (Photo: Getty Images)
Honest communication between a parent and teen is key to keeping kids mentally healthy and out of trouble online. (Photo: Getty Images)

If you do opt to monitor, which Roeske says “is not for lack of trust but for reasons of caring,” she suggests being aware that children often have more than one social media profile — one that’s parent-friendly and one that’s not — and of looking into some of the many apps for parental monitoring, which are not perfect but can “give you great insight into your child’s behavior.”

Domingues adds, “I would ask caregivers to be informed — know the language and what social media outlets there are and what your teen is using. While I understand that teens want privacy and need some privacy, as a caregiver you also need to be informed and check in.” She suggests collaborating with your teen on a plan to do so.

Rutledge, though, stresses “creating a connection” over monitoring, and “teaching them critical thinking, and investing in a relationship, so that you and your kids trust one another and can talk freely and openly. Kids who fear that parents are going to take their technology away are unlikely to be forthcoming, even when they need your help.”

Signs that your teen is struggling — and how to step in

Warning signs for parents when it comes to mental health crises are numerous, and might include: a clear change in your teen’s behavior, increased isolation in their room, withdrawal from activities they used to enjoy, changes in appetite and sleep habits, increased negative thinking, a drop in academics and an increase in irritability or other mood change, according to experts.

“If you see any of those issues… check in with your child. Offer outside help if you are worried,” Greenberg says. “You will be surprised how often kids find this outlet to be a tremendous sense of relief. If you feel worried, then pay attention to your intuition.”

Domingues adds, “Don’t wait for your teen to come to you. Check in regularly – even if they are telling you that everything is fine,” and especially if you are seeing any of the changes noted above. “These can be signs of something greater. I think it never hurts to reach out for help — especially during this time with the pandemic… Ask your pediatrician for referrals, reach out to mental health professionals, visit sites like childmind.org to be informed. Don’t wait.”

Signs that your teen might be using drugs — and how to stay ahead of it

Roeske offers a slew of drug-use signs to watch for, some of which are similar to those signaling depression and other mental health issues. They include a change in friends, a sudden need for privacy, an increased need for money (or stealing), a messy personal appearance, secretive phone calls or texts that seem to be in code, a lack of interest in hobbies once enjoyed and a drop in grades or failure to show up for school at all.

“This is more difficult to assess these days, as so many kids are struggling with distance learning,” Roeske admits. “But if they have a sudden lack of interest in school, it may indicate something more serious like a mental health issue or drug use.”

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Another sign more difficult to figure out due to the pandemic is any lack of interest in activities they once enjoyed. “This may be more difficult to assess at this time when many activities and sports have been suspended. And all too many kids are really struggling with this during COVID,” Roeske says. “It is so important that your teen has something they enjoy doing, even if that looks a bit different right now. Encourage positive activities — maybe arts and crafts or reading or doing an outdoor activity that can still be done safely and socially distanced. Establishing tech-free times is also important for teens and families. Not only does this reduce risk and opportunity for teens to engage in concerning peer relationships, but it also serves to strengthen the sense of connection within the family unit.”

But, she stresses, “Monitoring your teen’s behavior is even more important during COVID, as teens have been forced to isolate, especially if they are doing schooling online. Having an awareness of what they are doing and how they are feeling is key.”

As far as when to discuss the risks of drugs, particularly through social media, with your kids, Roeske says there’s no time like the present.

“When parents ask me when they should talk to their teen about drugs, my answer is always now! And hopefully, it’s not the first time,” she says. “Odds are that it will not be the first the teens are hearing of the topic. Establishing open lines of communication, trust and support with your teen are some of the most effective things you can do to stave off danger down the road. It is important that these not be lectures, but instead conversations. Talk to your teen about why it is so important to validate online products before ingesting them, that there is an open market out there that could sell you literally anything and really hurt you.”

Further, she stresses, “Discuss the dangers of drug use, age-appropriately, from a young age. And if you have concerns that your child is using drugs, ask them about it. If you don’t think you are getting the truth, consult a professional for help. Remember that it is always better to be concerned and more sensitive to potential use than oblivious to it. As parents, our job is to protect our children whatever it takes.”

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