September 28, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Good morning, MindSite News readers! In this week’s parenting newsletter, find out why school recess and play are so crucial to children’s mental health. In other news, we visit immigrant students in high school who are also working 12-hour night shifts at companies that are flagrantly violating child labor laws and harming teens’ physical and mental health.

Also in this issue: How notifications keep your teens hooked to the cell phone, even though – surprise! – many of them want to resist it. Plus: Kinship care as an alternative to foster care in Colorado, teens with autism can improve their communication skills with telehealth, and a number of popular family vloggers have recently crashed and burned, causing some viewers to examine their motivation for watching them.

Building resilience on the playground

In a recent study, scientists say that daily moderate-to-vigorous exercise for children is good for their mood and may increase their body’s resilience to stress. Child psychologist Andrea Bonior wrote about the paper for Psychology Today online. 

Researchers at the University of Basel followed a group of children, aged 10 to 13, for one week. Children wore a physical activity tracker that recorded their length of activity each day. In addition, they visited the lab two times within the week to complete a stress-inducing or non stress-inducing task. Before and during the tasks, scientists recorded the childrens’ cortisol levels, heart rates, and self-reported levels of anxiety. Though no difference in heart rates were detected, children who had more exercise recorded lower rises in cortisol during the stress-inducing activity. This suggests a correlation between regular exercise and the body’s response to anxiety.

While correlation does not confirm cause and effect, the study does further support research showing the mental health benefits of exercise. Moreover, opined Bonior, it shows the importance of physical education and unstructured recess in schools for the well-being of children. 

The study adds to an already formidable evidence base for the power of play. “Play supports the formation of the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with all caregivers that children need to thrive,” the American Academy of Pediatrics has written in a position paper, noting that free play at school recess was especially important. “In the presence of childhood adversity, play becomes even more important. The mutual joy and shared communication and attunement… that parents and children can experience during play regulate the body’s stress response.”  The AAP urges providers to write “prescriptions for play” for children during well child visits.

Grappling with 21-hour days, immigrant teens forced to choose between school and work

Expecting any human to function at a high level for 21 hours per day is unreasonable, especially if their brain isn’t fully developed yet. But that’s the exact scenario in which then 17-year-old Rodrigo found himself, after arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, from El Salvador a couple of years ago. He’s one of 250,000 migrant children who entered the US without their parents throughout 2021 and 2022. Rodrigo is also one of more than 100 others who spoke with GBS News in collaboration with PBS’s Frontline for a two-year investigative report on violations of child labor. 

He immigrated to the United States to escape gang violence and secure employment to help support his family. He succeeded on both fronts. After settling in with an older brother who provided his housing, another family member took Rodrigo to a seafood processing plant where he was hired directly by the processor – full-time for the overnight shift. No paperwork was required, either, to get him started. The money was necessary. He owed $5,000 to a smuggler (who likely assisted him in travel to the US) and needed to earn more money to send back to help his family in El Salvador. 

But for a full-time high school student, the shift lengths were too long – and illegal. GBS notes, “Federal law prohibits minors from operating some power-driven machinery. Massachusetts Law bars 16- and 17-year-olds from working shifts longer than nine hours, and from working after 10 pm on school nights.” Still, after struggling through a full day of classes, Rodrigo reported to work by 5 pm, working as many as 12 hours per night, often on his feet and operating heavy machinery. Despite his requests to end work by midnight, his supervisor refused. Soon, Rodrigo dropped out of school. His mental health was affected, since the hope he felt upon arriving in the U.S. was swallowed up in exhaustion and sadness.

New Bedford Public Schools district officials said their mission is to keep kids connected to school, but they recognize that students who have to work can struggle to do that. The challenge is greater for English language learners (ELL) like Rodrigo in a district that was recently found by the US Department of Justice to not be doing enough to ensure such students the same educational opportunities as their peers. NBPS interim superintendent Andrew O’Leary said this year the district will focus on increasing engagement with the families of ELL students and hiring more multilingual staff equipped to work with them.

Your teens wants to resist their phone, but notifications make it nearly impossible

Believe it or not, your teenager wants to reduce the amount of time they spend glued to their phone. “We’d all feel a lot better if we were on it less,” an 11th grader on Common Sense Media’s Youth Advisory Council told CNN. The group helps the company translate data to better understand the relationships between teens and their phones. “When I lost my phone … I didn’t have a phone for a week, and that week was amazing,” the teen continued. “Just not having a phone, it takes this weight off of you. It almost sets you free in a way.” 

That said, why not just put the phone down? Cell phone notifications. 

“Smartphones have become an always-on, sometimes disruptive force in the lives of young people,” said Jenny Radesky, coauthor of a recent report from Common Sense Media, an organization that helps kids and adults navigate media. “Because the industry has failed to offer young people better options for managing their smartphones, teens are working hard to be savvy about design features and how to set boundaries,” she said.

The research tracks, psychologist John Duffy (who is unaffiliated with the CSM report) wrote to CNN in an email. “Even during therapy sessions, teenagers receive notifications at an astonishing clip, sometimes dozens of times per session. Whereas a lot of adults might turn off notifications or shut their phones off while in class or an important meeting or while doing homework, teenagers tend to keep them on,” Duffy said. “An impulse pulls them toward looking at every single notification. As a result, their attention is scattered.”

In other news…

As YouTube family dynasties topple, viewers wonder about the harm in tuning in: In recent years, some of the most influential family vloggers have crashed and burned. Earlier this month, the YouTube channel 8 Passengers, led by Utah mom Ruby Franke took a hit when Franke was charged with multiple counts of aggravated child abuse after her 12-year-old son sought shelter with a neighbor. The boy arrived appearing to be malnourished and had open wounds. Franke’s 10-year-old daughter was found the same way by police. Jane Halterman, 30, told the Washington Post she’s addicted to the channel but is trying to break the habit. 

“They looked perfect,” she said. But Franke’s arrest also has her wonder, if her consumption of family vlogger content is a problem. “I now see it for what it is — exploitation of these minor [children] and voyeurism on my part,” said Halterman. Nonetheless, she’s unsure of what to do next.  She still watches family vlogs, albeit less than before Franke’s charges. But she wonders whether or not her continued viewing is ethical or if she should let go of the vlogs completely.

Colorado launches ‘kinship care’ to keep kids connected to biological families: Laura Giggy has loved and provided for her 2-year-old, M, since she was just a couple of months old. “We got a call from a relative saying that a relative’s child was in foster care,” she told Denver7 News. “Her parents were battling addiction.” Ultimately deciding to care for M, Giggy and her husband accessed the support to care for her well through Colorado’s new Kinnected Kinship Navigator Program. It connects children and families in the child welfare system to a navigator who acts as a foster care liaison for kinship caregivers, providing them with support, resources and more. The Giggys were among the first families to benefit and will soon celebrate adopting M as a permanent member of their household. “I don’t think any of us remember life before she came to us…We are very excited that she will be legally a part of our household and [we] will be able to care for her always,” said Giggy.

Teens with autism connecting with one another about mental health: Boston College professor Ed-Dee Williams recently created a virtual communications tool to help Black teens with autism improve their mental health by improving their communication skills. He told CBS News that it’s important for people to be able to speak about any mental distress they may feel, but autistic youth may struggle with conveying their mental distress in conversation. The virtual program enables teens to practice what they need to communicate about their mental health with a virtual character before telling a human about it in real life. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...