Children’s mental health crisis: Keeping kids off their phones – Lisa Jarvis

In “The Anxious Generation,” Jonathan Haidt delves into the digital world’s toll on children’s mental health, offering vital solutions for concerned parents. Highlighting the epidemic of mental illness, Haidt advocates for delayed immersion in smartphones and social media. Urging parental action, he calls for a collective effort to reshape societal norms. However, the battle extends beyond households; it demands accountability from governments and tech giants. With lives on the line, this article challenges us to safeguard our children’s well-being together.

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By Lisa Jarvis

Children today are growing up immersed in a digital world that is taking a toll on their mental health. Many parents know it’s a problem but don’t know how to fix it. The problem is too big.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers a prescription in his new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. Haidt provides a  necessary data-driven argument against a phone-obsessed childhood. But his most immediate solutions rely heavily on the collective will of parents to change course — a tacit acknowledgement that societal solutions are unlikely to arrive in time for this generation. Parents need more help.

Haidt makes the case that we’ve put bubble wrap around kids in the real world, while recklessly throwing open the floodgates in the virtual world. That deprives kids of the resilience and emotional fortitude that comes from healthy risk-taking in real life. He argues that boundary testing is increasingly rare even in spaces designed to encourage it, like playgrounds, and that kids are no longer granted the freedom to roam and develop the independence needed for a timely transition into adulthood. Meanwhile, they are allowed to wander the wilds of the internet and social media without sufficient supervision or boundaries.

Put together, it’s a recipe for the current teen mental health crisis. Borrowing heavily from the research of psychologist Jean Twenge, Haidt lays out the evidence that the arrival of smartphones coincides neatly with a sharp rise in anxiety and depression (most pronounced in girls) and a drop in in-person connectivity (most pronounced in boys).

Anyone trying to parent an adolescent or teen will likely find themselves vigorously nodding along. By now, we’ve all seen the alarming data reflecting a more anxious, isolated youth: 1 in 5 teens say they are almost constantly on YouTube or TikTok, nearly 1 in 3 teen girls say they’ve seriously considered suicide in the last year, and Gen Z spends far less time hanging out with their friends than Millennials, Gen Xers or Boomers did.

The big question is: What to do about it?

Haidt offers a long list of remedies targeted at various institutions, like schools, governments and social media companies.

But his most pointed prescription is for parents: “Supervise less in the real world but more in the virtual — primarily by delaying immersion.” What does that mean? Give kids more freedom to roam, allow no phones until high school, and bar social media until age 16.

He’s tuning into a movement already afoot. My colleague, Parmy Olson, recently wrote about UK parents banding together to delay cell phone use. A similar movement in the US called “Wait Until 8th” asks groups of parents to pledge not to give their child a phone until 8th grade, around the time most kids are 13 or 14.

As a parent who has drawn a firm line in the sand on social media and smart phones, I sincerely hope these efforts gain traction. I often think about something that Mitchell Prinstein, the chief science officer of the American Psychological Association, told me last year, after the APA issued its first advisory on social media use in adolescence: “We have no data to say kids will suffer social consequences by being offline.”

Some parents will quibble with that. I’ve had many friends tell me that, without a phone, their kids would be left out of social gatherings or friend group chats. Fair point, but what about a smart watch? Or a “dumb” phone that makes them reachable without introducing social media? There are workarounds.

But there’s a problem: This phone-free movement only really works if the majority participates. Friends’ phones at recess or at a sleepover are like second-hand smoke: your kid might not have the cigarette in their mouth, but they’re still exposed.

That leads me to another missing piece in the discussion: Parents urgently need help in giving kids the tools for establishing a healthy digital life, one where they eventually can safely navigate these spaces without being under constant parental surveillance — something, I’d argue, is also an essential component to the modern transition to adulthood. The genie is already out of the bottle for most of today’s tweens and teens (and likely for their younger siblings, too), and schools, community programs, even doctors can be partners in helping children find their way.

Parents alone can’t fix this problem. It feels fantastical to think collective parental will can override the immense power of social media companies getting rich on the backs of teens’ scrolling.

We need the government and all the social institutions that help nurture children’s development to do their part. Haidt’s main suggestion for social media companies is to raise the age account access from 13 to 16 and to put more work into verifying users’ ages.

That’s a fair suggestion, but one that doesn’t do enough. Haidt’s bigger impact on the problem will likely be his work in dispelling the myth that the data don’t prove that social media is contributing to teens’ mental decline. In his testimony before Congress in February, Meta Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed, to immediate ridicule, that, “The existing body of scientific work has not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health.”

That word “causal” is at the heart of the strategy Meta, TikTok, Alphabet Inc. and Snap Inc. are using to maintain the status quo. They lean on “correlation not causation” so they can keep kids hooked and resist calls for regulation. And they preserve those seeds of doubt by preventing researchers from studying their usage data. It’s a page straight out of the playbook long used by tobacco companies and climate deniers, and unfortunately has proven very effective.

We can’t let social media companies so easily off the hook. Parents can and should do their part by proceeding with more caution, but they need governments, schools and other institutions to show some real spine. Our kids’ lives are at stake. We shouldn’t have to defend them alone.

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