Our children’s mental health is in a state of increasing crisis. This isn’t just some sensationalized weather forecast warning of the approaching “Stormzilla,” which in reality turns out to be nothing more than a few snow flurries. This is real. In 2021, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a long-term study updated annually by the CDC, 42% of high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Also known as depression. 18% have gone so far as to make a suicide plan and 10% of high school students have actually attempted suicide. That means in your child’s high school classroom of 20 students, two of them are going to attempt to kill themselves this year.
Please pause here for a moment and try to absorb that…
Although if you figure out how to do that, let me know, because I learned this statistic over a year ago and still cannot wrap my mind around it. Author, Jean Twenge in a new book called “Generations“, came up with a horrifying analogy, saying “Imagine if nine airline flights filled with 10 to 24-year-olds crashed every single year, killing everyone on board.” All planes would be grounded. No one would fly until we resolved the issue. Now add the fact that more children are taking SSRI’s like Zoloft and stimulants like Adderall than ever before. Even more children experience generalized anxiety as early as Kindergarten without formal diagnosis. The numbers are so great that mental health teams have been created in public schools at all age levels across the country to deal with the influx of troubled children and they are overwhelmed. Parents should be, too.
Here’s the thing, we know what’s going on. Ask any parent and they’ll tell you what happened. “Social Media” they’ll say. “Smart phones” are the reason. There was a time when these were not widely accepted ideas. In fact, not long ago, many parents existed in a state of denial, perpetuated by their own relationships with these devices and platforms. Thankfully that is no longer the case. Author and human advocate, Jon Haidt and his colleagues have written eye-opening, compelling, data-driven articles and books about this. In a short article, “Do the Kids Think They are Alright?”, Haidt references surveys and studies, which show most of Generation Z acknowledges the downsides of technology and admit they use their cell phones too much. Indeed, where there is smoke, there is fire. Perhaps this new consensus will lead to a groundswell. If so, that signals an opportunity to do something about this complex issue.
A major challenge that confronts us is that we have not paid much attention to how we got here. The early years of life. That’s the part in which I am most interested. As it turns out, so is Haidt in his forthcoming book “The Anxious Generation.” As far as I am concerned, this book cannot be released soon enough. As a country, we are very good at focusing upon addiction when it comes to creating an action plan. Although it is often too late for these plans by the time anyone takes action. We are even less successful in preventing addictive behavior. Perhaps there are valid reasons for this; too many variables, not enough studies and the breakneck pace of technology to name a few. If we agree on the causes and we hope to change the global trajectory of our children’s mental health, to me that means early intervention long before the problems begin. This lays the burden squarely at the feet of new parents, who, as a group, may not be equal to the task. Perhaps that is one reason why things are getting worse not better.
I say this without meaning any insult to parents. Technology and other conditions of the iGeneration also known as Generation Z, have created an insurmountable learning curve for moms and dads. The generation gap between how today’s parents were raised and how they must raise their children seems wider than in any point in our history. I wrote about it back in 2019 as I struggled to overcome that same divide with my own teenage son.
One of the more valuable lessons I learned from that experience was “don’t wait.” Teaching the skills your child needs to navigate this complicated technological minefield can start at birth. Just like sexual education, it should take the form of an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-time list of do’s and don’ts. So, in this post, I’m going to focus upon getting in there early and often.
In order to have any chance at success, we must be able to recognize developmental opportunities where impressions are made and behaviors begin to take root. So let’s go back and start at the beginning…or thereabouts, looking somewhere shortly after the child begins to take those first steps. Whether intentional or not, usually by this age, there has already been at least one formative intersection between the child and technology. Even as early as 12 months old, some form of digital exposure is common for children. Platforms and devices range from streaming video services to smartphone/tablet apps and facetime video calls to the occasional personal photo image. If they aren’t presented directly, they are certainly a part of the child’s ecosystem.
Within that ecosystem, young children observe constant adult use of technology. Even if they are completely insulated from content, the ever-presence of the smart phone conveys a level of importance, which is most definitely not lost on them. Children’s toys at this age also begin to involve more screens, lights, sounds and motion. Many of them will produce such sensory stimuli for prolonged periods with little or no intentional effort from the child. Children are also walking and able to select their own toys. Because of the novelty and captivating stimuli, their interest is disproportionately greater for screens and electronics than other toys.
There is a window of time in in the early years where children begin to grasp the relationship between work and reward. It happens many years before teens start to shape their own self-images and relationships on the “likes” of their peers. In fact, from birth, all human beings start out driven purely to refine, grow and learn. Effort or struggle is not separated from these motivations. They are one and the same. For all children, the work itself is the goal. However, it is a rare first-time parent who is able to fully observe and nurture those efforts when that new infant arrives on the scene.
Perhaps the child’s loss of effort’s intrinsic value is inevitable, as “work” becomes something adults would otherwise choose to avoid given the option. However, use of personal technology accelerates this conceptual transition by rapidly inverting the natural relationship between work and reward. One more reason to hold off on handing your child that cell phone for as long as you can.
The ages from zero to six comprise the period of the most significant work in a human being’s life. Consider the difference between an infant and a 6 year old. No other 6 year age gap in life is nearly so vast. This is another reason why I believe it is the best time for parents to act. However, almost as if it is a developmental stage in itself, exposure to technology usually increases drastically in the final three years. All of it, introduced and actively promoted by well-meaning parents. As independence grows, children are able to use devices without the adult. This is another pivotal point in the devleopment of habits. Enabling more prolongued use, the technology is intentionally made to be mastered by children. Video game systems are often introduced near age five along with child-marketed tablet/cell phone applications.
Options for Youtube videos, television shows and children’s movies expand exponentially to a nearly infinite list of choices. Each clip is imbedded with intentional elements designed to reward screen time and minimize opportunities to disengage a young, absorbent mind. For example, streaming media sites like Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV and Disney all added the “autoplay next episode” and “Skip Intro” buttons around the same time. Netflix started the practice in 2017. Do not mistake this as an effort to offer convenience to their audience. These are obvious measures designed to ensure no one looks away from the screen, even for a second, lest they find an alternative form of entertainment in the real world.
I admit, prior to writing this post, I had never actually read what Netflix thinks about this Skip Intro idea. I’ve just been explaining it for what it clearly is and where it came from. However, reading that press release from the company made me feel even worse about it. It’s all depressingly there in poorly-written sentences phrased as if this little patience avoidance button is some kind of gift to humanity.
Take this stunner of a quote:
“On Netflix in a typical day, the Skip Intro button is pressed 136 million times, saving members an astonishing 195 years in cumulative time!”
I mean, I expected that article to confirm what I already know, but…well…I didn’t think it would be THAT on the nose. Netflix claims they have actually saved us time -with an exclamation point! I wonder how all that time will be spent and from what exactly Netflix is saving us aside from the opportunity to learn patience. I suppose the answers to those questions do not matter as much as the underlying statement about the vulnerabilities of humanity.
Actually, in a case of predictable irony and impeccable timing, TODAY, Amazon Prime Videos announced they will be running ads on their site. The option to skip them will cost users $2.99 a month. Looks like they found a way to reclaim those 195 years.
Obviously, from day one, Skip Intro became an immediate hit. In the article, one Netflix engineer said it best “I’m not sure that if you put a button that said ‘free cupcake’ that it would get more clicks than Skip Intro.” But really, sadly, none of what they wrote is inaccurate. Human beings like to get to the point. Anything that allows us to arrive there sooner is always going to be a winner. Side note to the reader, I’m aware of the irony of including that statement in a 3000 word post.
We are still discussing the early years of life. It is a highly formative stage in human development, in which the groundwork is laid for future digital technology habits. It is here that the pathway and the child’s place upon it begin to take shape. To understand where it leads, we should consider ourselves. How is your relationship with your phone? If you’ve managed to keep it 100% healthy, well, first off, excellent work! How did you do it? Now look at the people you know. I guarantee among them you’ll find more than a few who spend too much time with their phones. Once again, I bet most of them would admit to their problems without much arm-twisting. At least the ones that realize it.
Netflix is saving us from distraction from our distraction. Say that 5 times, fast. In direct opposition to these practices, some children may disengage long enough to pick their heads up and search for real-world social interactions. Unfortunately, the only place they’ll find their friends is on this same path, with their heads down. They certainly won’t find them outside, anyway. The “reward” of outdoor activity is not worth the effort, as children have already become disincentivized to leave the house. Hmmm. There’s that word effort again. Furthermore, knowing they’ll be alone when they step out the door is enough to keep children from opening it at all. This leaves parents with the no-win decision between falling back on technology or becoming the child’s only playmate. In the end, this isn’t much of a decision at all.
Between ages 6-10, although they are becoming much more socially aware, young boys at this stage mostly turn their technological attentions to internet gaming such as Minecraft, Roblox, Fortnite etc. which, offer the allure of high resolution, immersive video gaming with additional appeal of social interactions. With customizable avatars and unending novelty, a child can easily develop a deep, alternate virtual existence and spend equal time between that world and the real one. Far more addictive than any of the digital options in the child’s previous years, internet gaming taps into the pleasure center of our brains unlike any other stimulus the child has experienced up to this point. We’ll talk about this more in Part II.
Continuing from age 6-10, both boys and girls begin to ramp up attention toward their peers (what they are thinking, saying, feeling, doing, and wearing). Their efforts are aimed at finding their places in their rapidly expanding worlds. Girls use the internet differently than boys. With highly impressionable minds, they interact with platforms like Youtube, Tiktok and Instagram, consuming unrealistic images and examples in a way that makes the unsustainable seem achievable and fantasy is confused with reality. While gaming and media streaming starts early, social media arrives on the scene a bit later, afflicting tweens and teens…And it hits them hard.
Even adults are powerless to resist the infectious draw of “doom scrolling.” Those of you paying attention might have noticed the resemblance between that vertical media scroll and a digital slot machine. Social media doubles down on that idea for unsuspecting teens who, like the rest of us, subconsciously believe that next thumb flick is going to reveal something amazing. They just need to stay on Instagram long enough to find it. Along the way, they’ll encounter fictionalized updates from their friends and social media influencers as their initial fascination evolves into full blown FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
With a new level of digital proficiency and plenty of practice using parent’s phones, it is usually around age 10-14 where children receive their own cell phones. So those that have resisted social media up to this point, are easily swept away by the tidal wave of unending visual stimuli. According to a survey by Common Sense Media, over half of children have their own cell phones by age 11. Once the child has the ability to carry his or her media with them wherever they go, television use generally decreases or remains the same. Simultaneously, consumption of online videos and daily posts from “influencers” on social media sites drastically increases. This is also the age at which, statistically, the wheels come off. Although this progression has been anything but sudden, it is also often not until these ages where parents begin to recognize just how bad things have become. Unfortunately, now the problem looks more like addiction, and we’ve discussed how that often plays out.
In the moments where these teenagers do find themselves without the sensory stimulation of screens, they are left alone with their thoughts. Unfortunately, teens also lack sufficient practice with introspection or processing their feelings. For many, this results in discomfort and anxiety. Although alarming, given the causes, it is not difficult to understand why teenage depression statistics are headed toward 50% of the population.
To the observant parent, the behavioral effects of technology use have been evident all along. No one is happy about what they see in their children when they are holding that cell phone or fixated on the tablet or television. It is just that the behaviors may not have reached an actionable level of concern. I would argue that we all need to recalibrate on this one and recognize that we are a bit too desensitized to accurately recognize when things have gone far enough. But we are also fighting normal parenting instinct, because this all comes from a good place. Although it is an unrealistic lifetime goal, parents want to make their children happy. Our children aren’t the only ones who believe that technology makes this goal attainable.
All those little incremental moments of development and technological introductions discussed above blur into one another. The opportunities for intervention are most recognizable the end of one stage and the beginning of another. However, they still may pass us by unnoticed. In fact, most of us, from the very beginning, misinterpret our children’s interactions with technology. What seems like extended focus, happiness and genuine interest is really passive engagement fueled by addictive mechanisms which literally rewire the child’s brain. With less in-person socialization to go on because peers are not readily available, parents may also lack a reliable frame of reference by which to compare their child. A parent’s own personal use of these devices and our own slow but steadily increasing reliance upon them normalizes the child’s behavior, all but obscuring any hint of real harm.
Where is your child along this pathway? Where are you? I ask it this way because it is not a question of whether you or your child are on this path. That answer is always yes. In previous generations, parents used to worry about children “falling in with the wrong crowd.” Turning to a life of crime or drugs was the most dreaded outcome. They knew (whether they applied this knowledge or not) that the best intervention occured BEFORE the child set foot on the wrong path. In this way, energy was devoted not just to avoiding a known threat, but to developing concepts and skills that would help children to resist it. Like parents of the 70’s and 80’s, we know the threat and where it lies. However, unlike the children of those generations, who might rarely encounter the challenges for which they had been prepared, today’s children carry the “wrong crowd” with them in their pockets.
Resistance. It is an important word in this discussion. We’ve still got programs, which teach this in our schools. We are taught (whether effectively or not) to resist abuse and bullying. DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) sends officers to schools to promote resistance. The word “Resistance” is right there in the title. Perhaps we need a program teaching children to resist cell phones, social media, internet gaming and addictive technology, too. No one could disagree that the solution becomes a much more manageable prospect if we step in early.
There’s a mountain of work and I am happy to see that some of it has finally begun. For example, just this week, my son’s high school released a new cell phone policy. Kids now must leave their phones in a holding container at the classroom door. Up to now, it’s been the wild west as far as cell phone use. In most schools, administration has left teachers holding the bag…literally, to somehow enforce their own classroom rules. Not surprisingly, most high school students spend half of each class distracted by their cell phones. Today, with one voice, Heritage High School in Loudoun County, Virginia said “No more.” Their action is already bearing fruit. A colleague of mine shared this story about her 17 year old son: “I was cautioning him that Spring baseball season is coming and he would need to factor that extra workload into his studies. In all seriousness, without a hint of irony, he said “It’s ok, mom. We can’t use cell phones in class anymore, so my grades will be better.” Ah, from the mouths of babes. There is hope.
The more I read and learn about this complicated situation, the more certain I am that we can make a difference for the next generation. Like I said, we’ve still got a job to do and I hope you’ll join me. In my next post, we’re going to discuss the real currency exchanged in all these billions of online transactions. It springs from an unlimited, renewable resource and is more valuable than gold. Its called Dopamine.
See you in Part II.