Gulf Today

Only parents can’t protect kids from social media


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 oten think about something that Mitchell Prinstein, the chief science officer of the American Psychologi­cal Associatio­n, told me last year, ater 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 let 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 botle 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.

Lisa Jarvis, Tribune News Service

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