Cape Breton Post

How to get kids off screens and happier

- JOHN DEMONT @CH_coalblackh­rt John DeMont is a columnist for The Chronicle Herald.

I’m still down in the dumps about something I read the other day: that unhappines­s among the world’s young people has grown to the point where — even though they have their entire lives ahead of them — they are less joyful about things than oldtimers who can see the end of the runway up ahead.

Not only that, according to the World Economic Forum’s new World Happiness Report, the gulf between old and young is eyebrowrai­sing-high: our over-60s rank sixth out of 143 counties in the world in terms of happiness. When it comes to people under the age of 30, Canada falls to 58th globally. What is going on? According to the report, the ratcheted-up level of anxiety among our youth is due to a perfect storm of factors: the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; the fear of nuclear war in some far off place and civil war in our neighbour to the south; the threat that climate change presents to their futures; the paucity of stable job prospects coupled with skyrocketi­ng costs whether at the grocery store or in the housing market.

Solving those big challenges is beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.

Not so another factor mentioned by the report’s authors, the impact of social media, which is particular­ly hard on the young.

By that I mean the crippling and dangerous online bullying, along with the feelings of inadequacy that well up when the lifestyles of the rich and famous — and even those of the popular kid in the same school — are just a click away.

Then there is the isolation that occurs when social connection takes place on screens rather than in person.


The big brains at the World Economic Forum are far from the only people bemoaning this.

In his bestsellin­g book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” American social scientist Jonathan Haidt argues that the one-two punch of overprotec­tive parenting and “phonebased childhood” are leading to a “tidal wave of suffering” among the young.

By that he means the documented rises in youth anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness.

In the book, No. 1 on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list last week, Haidt issues a simple, fourpronge­d call to action to free the young from their screen habit.


Two of his proposals are in parent’s hands: don’t give your kid a phone until they hit age 14; and keep them off social media until they are 16.

This might help change a startling fact contained in the latest Statistics Canada report on cellphone use. Some 88 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 34 pick up their cellphones at least once an hour with nearly half of them touching their phones every 15 minutes.

Another of Haidt’s ideas — establishi­ng phone-free schools — already seems to be getting some traction.

This week, Ontario announced that starting in September it will ban cellphone use in the province’s schools and halt social media use on school networks and devices.

Other provinces are sure to follow.

While stopping short of predicting an absolute ban on cellphone use in Nova Scotia schools, Education and Early Childhood Developmen­t Minister Becky Druhan said this week that the government is working on a cellphone use policy for classrooms.

That’s at least something in a province where in-school phone use, in the words of the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, presents a “classroom management nightmare.”


On the face of it, the last of Haidt’s call-to-action steps should be easier to make reality. The gist of it: give kids an alternativ­e to screens by letting them play independen­tly outdoors in the real, natural world.

Again, the numbers are instructiv­e. The average Canadian youth spends 48 minutes outdoors a day compared to the more than four hours daily they were on their screens during the worst of the pandemic.

“You can’t just take away their digital babysitter, then expect them to just get better when you pull it away,” Adam Bienenstoc­k, founder of Bienenstoc­k Natural Playground­s, told me in an interview.

Haidt interviewe­d the Dalhousie University graduate for his book because Bienenstoc­k’s Dundas, Ont.-based company builds natural playground­s around the world.

“The real job is not to just make stuff that looks pretty,” he told me. “It is to create things where their senses are fully engaged so that their tongues are sticking out and in the moment.”


Getting outside, like he used to when he was a kid, does that. Outdoor play does other things too, he said.

Social skills, like empathy and timework, grow. Connecting with nature reduces stress, and anxiety and also improves mental well-being.

STEM scores — a student’s math and science scores — climb, Bienenstoc­k said, but so does the kind of lateral thinking that employers of tomorrow will value.

“All it takes is the equivalent of one class a day spent outdoors to make a huge difference,” he said.

To me, that makes perfect sense. But so does something touched on in a recent SaltWire editorial: the value of teaching students how to use smart devices and social media responsibi­lity.

That, I know from my own up-and-down-campaign to put down the phone, is no simple thing.

Some strategies help: getting rid of the smartphone apps that most consistent­ly draw the eye; doing away with the multitaski­ng — doomscroll­ing while walking outdoors, for example, or just pointlessl­y checking your phone at the dinner table — that keeps feeding the addiction.

I like, but have not tried, the technique of a co-worker, who has left copies of the poems of Mary Oliver lying around his house.

That way, instead of stealing a quick glance at X (formerly Twitter), he might read, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely the world offers itself to your imaginatio­n, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

Which, let’s face it, leaves a person better armed to go forth and face the day than poring over on the latest Trumpian chaos.

 ?? ??
 ?? UNSPLASH ?? Research suggests all the time kids spend on screens and social media contribute­s to anxiety.
UNSPLASH Research suggests all the time kids spend on screens and social media contribute­s to anxiety.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada