A few weeks ago, the NYT published an article about mental health and smartphones. It assured parents to stop panicking because smartphones are not responsible for the recent decline in mental health.
Many of us who work on the frontlines with kids and families are not panicked about tech, but concerned. And rightly so. As both the Founder of Turning Life On and a parent, I read endless research studies, regularly interact with struggling parents and kids, and share information with professionals in the field. I have yet to meet someone who isn't concerned about the negative impacts of digital media use, especially on children and teens.
Societal issues are rarely one-dimensional. Many things are contributing to the mental health crisis, including our society's obsession with “success." Tweens and teens, those who account for the most dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, suicide ideation and suicide (an increase which coincides with the release of the iPhone), are focused on their own little bubbles. But let's put this into perspective. Multiple research studies reveal that kids spend north of 6 hours per day online. Not only are their little bubbles floating around in cyberspace, they also aren't developmentally prepared to shift attention to real life happening around them. Can we responsibly say this isn't affecting their ability to truly connect or their resilience, both of which impact mental health? Of course not. Most likely it is, to varying degrees.
To look at this from a simple psychological perspective, the cognitive behavioral therapy treatments for depression and anxiety are connection and exposure, respectively. Are screens not interfering with true human connection? What about exposure to uncomfortable experiences? Kids use their smartphones quite often to avoid situations - at the bus stop, in the school cafeteria, when breaking up. They aren't learning that they can handle discomfort, confrontation, boredom. Many kids complain that their friends are always staring at a device; “it’s annoying…no one talks to each other...it makes me sad.” We don’t need research to show us this. We just need to look around.
Kids don't need more time on screens. They need connection, sleep, discovery of the physical world, unstructured time, and downtime for optimal development. They need to cultivate tolerance to being bored, disappointed and uncomfortable because that is the basis of resilience. We have to find a way to balance technology so kids can get what they need.
Given that survey data continue to report more screen use and at increasingly younger ages, we should be concerned. We need to give kids clear messages about their choices.
TurningLifeOn.org is loaded with suggestions for parents. Visit our Empower section for more ideas. Encourage your friends, colleagues and community leaders to join the movement! Follow the links for more information about protecting sleep, establishing a people come first rule, or how to support each other. For expert reactions to the NYT article, follow for thoughts from Jean Twenge, PhD and Jonathan Haidt, PhD.