JIM SHARPE

Social media plus post-2010 tech equals troubled teens

Apr 1, 2024, 1:00 PM | Updated: 1:09 pm

As we roll out our KTAR News series, “Youth on Edge,” some people may point to the consumption of inappropriate media as one of the reasons our kids are suffering psychologically — so it may seem weird that I let my daughters watch something this weekend that I would normally never let them watch: “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

My wife and I had our 11- and even our 8-year-old watch an interview that Maher did with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of the new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.”

Haidt’s research shows some scary things.

Starting in the 2010s, college campuses started seeing a marked increase in depression and anxiety among undergraduates. According to the American College Health Association, between 2010 and 2018, depression among undergraduates increased by 106% and anxiety increased by 134%.

Between 2010 and 2021, there was an approximate 150% increase of US teens who experienced a major depression within the last year — with the latest measurement of that stat showing that almost 30% of girls feel that way.

What’s behind this? Haidt believes smartphones and social media were the culmination of a trend that started decades ago.

We went from a society where kids played outside and roamed neighborhoods, to a world in the ‘80s and ‘90s — where 24-hour cable news stories of child abductions convinced parents that the real world is too scary to let kids out into — and we entered the era of playdates and helicopter parenting.

Then came the Internet and cellphones which wasn’t all bad — when the Internet and phones were separate (when we all used flip phones — not just grandpa). That was a world where teens talked on their phone to set up a time to hang out in person.

Now we are living in a society where the real world’s been replaced by a virtual world and the world of social media, which is a world full of lies about how everybody else is better looking and living a better life than our kids.

Which makes our post-2010 real world truly scary — with its sharply rising rates of anxiety, depression and suicide.

Haidt has some suggestions:

  1. Giving our children a lot more time playing with other kids — with little-to-no adult supervision.
  2. Look for more ways to embed children in stable real-world communities.  Our girls are involved in theater, gymnastics and team sports — you may choose something like scouting — but whatever it is, it will always be way better than anything online.
  3. Don’t give your kid a smartphone until high school. 
  4. Delay letting kids open accounts on most social media platforms until — at least — the beginning of high school. 

Easier to do if other parents get on board — and easier still if our legislature gets on-board and creates a sort-of “age of internet adulthood.” What was just passed in Florida sounds good: That new law prohibits children younger than 14 from creating a social media account in the state. 14- and 15-year-olds need a parent’s consent before they join a social media platform.

Personally, I’d pick something closer to 16 as the verified-age when kids can get a social media account — and that still may be too early when you consider how far past 16 I am — and how bad social media can be for me sometimes. 

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Social media plus post-2010 tech equals troubled teens