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How to save a generation from smartphone destruction

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The dangers are real, and our response must be as well.

When I was in high school, social media was just on the brink of sweeping into our lives. I can remember visiting AIM chat rooms as early as middle school (after the 20-minute dial up, of course), but by high school instant messenger was growing in popularity and dial-up was a thing of the past. We all had cell phones, but those phones did not yet have internet access.

I didn’t get a smartphone until I had two kids. I was giddy when the Facebook app was unveiled, and dove head-first into the latest apps and platforms for years.

Then something happened. I had a kind of nervous breakdown, and stepped back from social media for the first time. It was during this time that I realized a profound shift had occurred — social media was not enriching my life, it was consuming it. It no longer amused me and made me happy — it was driving me to obsessive, compulsive behavior, pushing me further into depression and anxiety, and stealing all the joy out of real, everyday living.

The September issue of the The Atlantic featured an article asking a salient question: have smartphones destroyed a generation? It was written by Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has spend 25 years researching generational differences. Despite the pensive title, the article is less a think piece and more a sounding of the alarms.

“Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data — some reaching back to the 1930s — I had never seen anything like it.”

She explains that 2012 is the year that the percentage of Americans owning smartphones surpassed 50 and became the majority — in fact, it was the same year that I got my first smartphone. Twenge goes on to detail these massive changes in the way members of this generation — she calls them iGen — experience their teenage years.

Physically, they are safer. But that’s because they spend all their time in their rooms on social media. Psychologically, they are “on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.”

She traces this mental health crisis to a myriad of potential causes — a decline in dating, face-to-face social interaction, and part-time jobs; an increase in loneliness, anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation, all of it culminating in an alarming spike in teen suicide rates — and all of it connected to the twin rise of smartphones and social media.

I think to most of us, this is hardly surprising. By now society is beginning to wake up to the dangers posed by smartphones and social media. The question we should ask now isn’t “have smartphones destroyed this generation?” but “how can we protect them from these psychological dangers?”

It’s easy enough to say “don’t give them smartphones,” and that’s a good place to start. Certainly there has been a rise in low-tech connectivity devices, from flip phones to gizmo watches that allow kids to make and receive calls, but not to access the internet or text. My kids are even rediscovering the joys of Polaroid cameras, as the novelty of an instant picture you can hold and pin on the wall is more appealing than fleeting Snapchats.

That’s not to say they won’t keep asking for iPhones — they will, of course. But as parents, we can do more than just say “no” and stick to it. We can — and should — talk to them about the real dangers of prioritizing virtual life over reality. My kids know that when I spend too much time on Facebook, I get sad. I’ve talked to them about it and they’ve witnessed it themselves. So when I start to scroll more and more after they get home from school, they point it out, and I delete the Facebook app. Sometimes just for a day, sometimes for a few weeks — but it’s a way to show them that the emotional dangers are real, and that we should guard against them together.

There are a thousand other things we can do, of course — encourage face-to-face social time, get them outside more often, maybe even get a landline and teach them old-fashioned phone etiquette and the horrors of the busy signal. But since they won’t live under our roofs forever and we can’t put the smartphone/social media genie back in the bottle, we should treat it like every other double-edged sword our kids will face — prepare them for it. Be open and honest, give them the tools they need to navigate the brave new world of social media, and help them develop the strength to step away from it when necessary. It’s a much better use of our time than lamenting their destruction.

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