A child psychologist says we need to take more steps to rescue our youth from the perils of social media and smart phones.
As the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, there’s been another type of scourge that’s been growing for years — the effects of media and technology on youth.
For any good that has come of the tech revolution for our kids and adolescents, the research continues to pour in about all sorts of serious problems it’s causing in regards to physical, psychological, social, and spiritual health.
Most recently, a Wall Street Journal report indicates that Facebook has been hiding research conducted over the past three years that clearly indicates that Instagram is harming youth, especially teen girls.
Among many findings, almost a third of girls polled revealed that when they were feeling poorly about their bodies, their time on Instagram made them feel worse. Six percent of American users and 13% of British users traced their suicidal thoughts back to Instagram; in general, the data was clear that for many youth, Instagram is an unhealthy place to be. Forty percent of Instagram users are under the age of 22.
As infuriating as it is to hear that this research was being hidden, Facebook, which owns Instagram, clearly states in their documents that youth have been and continue to be one of its major targets for growth. The company is currently working on building an Instagram platform for youth under the age of 13, while seemingly ignoring its own research about how toxic this platform is for younger users.
Imagine if you were on a team growing and marketing a product and in the course of your development, you discovered it was poisonous for some of your consumers. Yet despite possessing clear evidence of its toxicity, you not only hide this information from the public (who continues to consume your product), you decide to further market and engineer it for the very individuals impacted the most.
But it’s not just Facebook. It should be noted that stories abound over the past two decades about how the tech industry continues to take advantage of people in the name of profit.
As one of many examples, three years ago the Wall State Journal reported that two big Apple investors called out the company in regards to clear evidence that “iPhones and children are a toxic pair.” Research related to addiction and psychological maladjustment for youth and smartphones had clearly indicated that these phones were causing significant harm for our youth; nevertheless, Apple was continuing to forge ahead in marketing these products to younger and younger kids (not to mention its other products in schools). Despite this admonition, I have yet to see how Apple has made any improvements in this area while they continue to infiltrate the youth market.
For the last decade plus, I’ve been speaking and writing widely about the topic of youth and technology as a psychologist and father and I’ve come to a few conclusions.
First,social media and smartphones were never designed for our youth, nor are kids prepared to use them — even with regular monitoring and supervision.
The psychological and neurological research of the past few decades has clearly demonstrated that just like drinking alcohol, gambling, or owning a credit card, our youth are simply not equipped to manage tech as it is currently being used. The reality is that as even adults struggle mightily to manage their tech in a healthy way, our youth’s intellectual resources and life experiences are outstripped by devices and associated freedoms that are simply too much for them to manage. My colleagues in the psychology who work with youth see this every day.
Second, technology is here to stay, but there is simply no reason that it has stay with our youth as it is currently.
Used strategically, it is a great tool, but this is not how most of our youth are using it, nor are we as parents and teachers sanctioning it in a healthy way. We simply must take more assertive steps if we are going to stem the significant negative tide of health and well-being for our youth that tech is partly responsible for; although monitoring and education is important, it is insufficient in curbing the harmful trends.
Third, nothing will change unless we as caregivers and professionals take intentional steps to do so.
Ironically, it is our youth more than anyone else — whether they realize it or not — who are pleading with us to protect them in this way. Signs indicate they are growing weary of being addicted to their phones (50% admit this is the case) and watching their self-image plunge in front of a screen as they anxiously await the next post or communication.
A few weeks ago, our 15-year-old son was talking to us about all the horrible things that his friends have coming into their phones on a regular basis. Along with his twin sister, they are two of three teens in their sophomore class without a phone or social media accounts.
Since my kids were very young, they’ve heard their mother and me talk about the intentional choices we were making for ourselves and our family in regard to media/technology. Although many of us (other than the youngest kids) use the internet regularly, our kids don’t have gaming systems, mobile devices, cable, or social media accounts. All of these choices are predicated on doing what we feel is best for our kids’ short and long-term health and well-being.
During our discussion, my son mentioned particular posts on his friends’ phones so embarrassing and disgusting that he couldn’t bear to tell his mother what they were about. And yet, as he noted, what he was seeing was a regular stream that couldn’t be stopped, unless these kids blocked their friends (which was very unlikely) on their phones and social media accounts.
As he was sharing this, it’s as if a light bulb was getting brighter. Although he had accepted our decision of no phones/accounts easier than his sister in previous years, it didn’t come without its own challenges and resistance. Yet two years into high school, firmly engaged in athletics, academics, and with a core friend group, it seemed he understood why we’ve made these choices about how we use tech in our family. And I believe as he continues to grow up, he’ll be very glad about it.