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Parenting in the Age of Smartphones, Social Media and Ubiquitous Screens

Article Contributed by Andrew Hertz, MD – Zest Pediatrics – The Nest Schools Medical Education Partner

Parenting in the Age of Smartphones, Social Media, and Ubiquitous Screens:

Conflicting Views Yet Straightforward Recommendations

I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” in which he sheds light on the alarming mental health crises affecting today’s youth.

Haidt’s findings underscore a dramatic increase in mental health issues among teenagers and young adults, particularly since 2010. He attributes these eye-opening changes to smartphones, social media, and the resultant change in how children play. Yet not all experts agree with him. For balance, nuance, and to help you, I have read and listened to some of those opinions who disagree with Haidt.

So, what are parents to do? Let’s briefly walk through Haidt’s book, other opinions, and review sensible recommendations.

Haidt presents sobering data

  • Depression: A 145% increase in diagnoses among US teenage girls and a 161% increase among teenage boys.
  • Anxiety: A 139% rise in anxiety among individuals aged 18-25.
  • Self-Harm: A 188% increase in emergency room visits for self-harm among adolescent girls.
  • Suicide Rates: A 91% increase in the suicide rate for boys aged 10-14 and a staggering 167% increase for girls of the same age group.

These trends are not isolated to the United States; the latest World Happiness Report indicates similar patterns in Canada, the UK, Australia, among other countries. It’s true: teenagers today are less happy than any previous generation.

The Great Rewiring of Childhood

Haidt attributes this crisis to what he calls the “Great Rewiring of Childhood,” which began around 2010. Here’s a breakdown of this transformation:

Early 2000s

  • Technology: The rise of personal computers and widespread internet access by 2001. Children had basic cell phones primarily for communication.
  • Mental Health: No significant decline in teen mental health during this period.

2010-Present

  • Smartphones: The introduction of the iPhone 4 with a front-facing camera and the rapid growth of Instagram after its acquisition by Facebook in 2012 marked a significant shift in social media usage among teens.

  • Screen Time: By 2016, 79% of teens owned a smartphone, and 28% of children aged 8-12 had one. Teens reported spending an average of nine hours a day on screen media, including video games, Netflix, YouTube, and other platforms, with 25% being online almost constantly.

The Impact of Social Media on Childhood

Haidt discusses how childhood has changed from a Play-Based Childhood embracing real-world activities with synchronous play fostering long-term relationships and conflict resolution to a Phone-Based Childhood. The phone-based childhood of today embraces communication that is disembodied, asynchronous, one-to-many communications in disposable communities. What does this mean? Children do not learn to have meaningful face-to-face communication, cannot easily interpret body language, and do not develop the ability to navigate difficult conversations. They can simply “unfriend,” stop following someone that offends them or with whom they disagree.

The effects of the phone-based childhood are social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction. This is what prompted the US Surgeon General in June to suggest all social media sites have a disclaimer of possible harm to children. Other states are working on laws limiting social media use by age.

Consequences of Overprotection in Parenting

Haidt further discusses the impact that more protective parenting has had on children. Families have become reluctant to let their kids go out and just play, inadvertently allowing them to remain inside on screens either alone or with on-line friends. It is imperative for children to be put in challenging situations, be given ever increasing responsibilities and challenges, and allowing them to “fend” for themselves to gain the confidence and skills to enable resilience.

Haidt’s Recommendations

Haidt proposes several solutions at the community, government, and parent levels. Many schools are already following, or will soon align with, his recommendations to ban smart phones in school. Some states are pursuing this on a state-wide level.

His recommendations to parents are straightforward:

  • Delay Smartphone Use: Avoid providing smartphones before high school and delay social media use until age 16 (he outlines the science behind choosing these ages based on brain development).
  • Encourage Unsupervised Play: Allow children more freedom to play and explore without constant supervision.

The Broader Conversation

Haidt’s findings align with other warnings about the harm social media and smartphones can inflict on teenagers. Critics argue that these technologies impede learning, stunt relationships, and create environments hostile to human development.

Sherry Turkle, a social scientist at MIT, has long argued that social media and internet use replace normal human communication, leading to isolation and emotional pain through the “illusion of companionship.” Similarly, in 2021, former Facebook staffer Frances Haugen leaked documents showing that Meta, Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, ignored its own research on the harmful effects of Instagram on teenage girls’ self-esteem.

In June, the US Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, proposed a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents. In his editorial explaining his recommendation, he states:

The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor. Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms, and the average daily use in this age group, as of the summer of 2023, was 4.8 hours. Additionally, nearly half of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies.

Dr. Murthy offers additional recommendations similar to Haidt’s:

Schools should ensure that classroom learning and social time are phone-free experiences. Parents, too, should create phone-free zones around bedtime, meals and social gatherings to safeguard their kids’ sleep and real-life connections — both of which have direct effects on mental health. And they should wait until after middle school to allow their kids access to social media. This is much easier said than done, which is why parents should work together with other families to establish shared rules, so no parents have to struggle alone or feel guilty when their teens say they are the only one who has to endure limits. And young people can build on teen-focused efforts like the Log Off movement and Wired Human to support one another in reforming their relationship with social media and navigating online environments safely.

However, some researchers challenge Haidt’s and the Surgeon General’s conclusions and recommendations, arguing that the evidence linking social media to mental health issues is mixed and often overstated.

Candice Odgers, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, argues that Haidt’s claims are not supported by science. She contends that the evidence shows no consistent or measurable associations between social media use and mental health problems.

Similarly, Dylan Selterman, a psychology professor at Johns Hopkins University, notes that studies on the effects of social media on teen mental health have shown mixed results, with some even suggesting positive effects. Many believe there are benefits of social media for teens that otherwise might feel marginalized due to having minority sexual or gender identities.

Michaeline Jensen, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, emphasizes in a radio interview that the research on social media’s impact on adolescent mental health is nuanced. She advocates for guiding parents and young people on how to engage online positively rather than simply issuing warnings.

What To Do as a Parent – Some Commonsense Recommendations

Despite the debates, there remains a consensus that the mental health crisis among adolescents needs urgent attention. While social media’s role in this crisis remains contested, fostering healthier, more balanced lifestyles for young people is crucial.

Commonsense Recommendations

  1. Family Screen Plan – create a Family Screen Plan (see prior article on this topic). Review and update this regularly. Part of this is parents modeling healthy screen habits. 
  2. Play – support creative play without the use of screen time. Preferably with other children, outside, and without direct adult involvement.
  3. Responsibility and Challenge – challenge your kids to get out of their comfort zone. Let them cook, clean, have chores that stretch them. Let them struggle and learn.
  4. Community – discuss smartphone timing and social media with other parents, school, and community. Agree with all the parents of your children’s close friends to hold off on smartphones until high school and social media accounts until 16. What is the downside? A surly teen? You might have that no matter what! But the upside may be huge.
  5. Support – if your children’s school implements a no-phone policy, support it. Don’t complain you will not be able to reach your child in case of an emergency. You can call the school for an emergency and have them contact your child. Emergencies, statistically, don’t happen that often.

These are simple and reasonable approaches to the current situation. Your child only grows up once. Their brains only develop once. Support your child in these ways and help them flourish, develop strong relationships with others, and instill resiliency and life-long healthy habits.