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Is the Internet Ruining Our Mental Health?

Screentime is impacting kids’ mental health — and so are overprotective parents.

April 2024

Script

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Something has gone wrong for America’s children.

At rates we’ve never been seen before, they’re anxious. They’re lonely. They’re depressed.

What happened here?

As you might suspect, a big part of the story is online.

And, as you might not suspect, the other big part of the story is … parents.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

A lot of the turbulence in modern-day America boils down to two basic facts: (1) The internet is awesome. (2) The internet is awful.

Now, really, America should be better equipped to deal with this paradox. After all, we’re a country that specializes in things that start out promising but inevitably go off the rails: cheeseburgers, big trucks, Kanye.

And, well, where the internet is concerned … you know how this story goes: Most of us are glued to our devices most of the time. And this is a decidedly mixed bag.

Half of the time we’re productive, in touch with friends, or at least entertained. And the other half we’re … just kinda scrolling. And not feeling great about it.

But here’s where things get complicated: If finding a healthy balance between when to be online and when to be unplugged is a struggle for adults … it’s something closer to a full-blown mental health crisis for adolescents.

Now, it’s worth noting that the problem here isn’t really the internet per se. Millennials — the first generation that came of age with widespread internet access — didn’t really see much in the way of corresponding mental health problems.i And in hindsight, it’s easy to see why.

You were a lot less likely to spend hours at a time texting back when writing the letter S required pressing 7 four times.

Also, it was harder to spend your whole life online when you could get knocked off anytime your mom picked up the phone. (You’ll never understand this, Gen Z, but it was the closest thing Millennials had to Vietnam).

But over the last decade or so, things changed — a lot.

In 2011, only 23 percent of American teens had a smartphone.ii Only five years later, 79 percent of them did.iii

In 2015, about one out of every four teenagers said that they were online “almost constantly.” By 2022, it was nearly half.iv

And, as the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes in his book, The Anxious Generation, the results of all that screen time are … not great.

Haidt notes that beginning in the early 2010s, we started to see dramatic reductions in the mental well-being of young people.

Rates of major depression for teenagers went up by around 150 percent.v

Anxiety amongst the young shot through the roof.vi

There was an enormous spike in suicide rates among young adolescents.vii

And there was a massive drop-off in the number of teenagers who said that they were satisfied with themselves.viii

And Haidt’s research found a consistent pattern: All around the world, rapid changes in the unwellness of young people tended to correspond with rapid changes in technology.ix

Which technologies? It wasn’t just smartphones and high-speed internet access — though that helped. The biggest changes came with the introduction of phones with front-facing cameras that facilitated more selfies and videos; and the growth of interactive social media features such as likes, shares, retweets, and comments.

The result: A world in which kids at the most impressionable ages kids at the most impressionable ages constantly feel pressure to cultivate an image for their peers — and get judged for it in real time; and a world in which kids can constantly compare themselves to people who seem happier, prettier, or more popular than them.

Now, chances are … you’re not entirely surprised by this. Many of us have had the sensation of realizing that we’re spending too much time on social media … and feeling less happy as a result. Imagine how much worse that is for young people whose brains are still years away from fully developing the capacity for self-control or delayed gratification.x

But here’s the part you may not have seen coming: While Jonathan Haidt argues that part of the reason kids’ well-being is suffering is because they’re drowning in the worst aspects of online life, he argues that the other part … is that we’ve removed too many opportunities for kids to develop in the real world. In the last few decades, the rise of overprotective parenting has dramatically reduced kids’ opportunities to do things on their own.

Playing with other kids unsupervised? On the decline.

Trick-or-treating without a chaperone? Forget about it.

Going into a different aisle of the grocery store than your parents? You’ll need a police escort.

And what do you get when kids aren’t allowed to do anything in the real world but have endless access to the virtual one? Well, you get lines like this:

The amount of time kids spend just hanging out with each other is plummeting.xi

And that has a couple of worrying implications.

First, it means that, these days, E.T. would be $#!+ out of luck.

But, second, it means that kids are losing one of the most important tools for becoming functional adults: real-world interactions.

In the same way that kids need to be exposed to things like dirt and bacteria in order to build up a functioning immune system,xii they also need to be exposed to all the difficulties that come with navigating the outside world — and other kids — in order to transform into confident, capable adults.

Talking with friends in person rather than via text means learning how to read body language — and communicate by methods other than emojis.

Getting cuts and bruises from skateboarding or climbing a tree teaches them how to judge risk — and bounce back from setbacks.

Letting kids freely play with each other without adult supervision teaches them teamwork, how to manage disagreements, and how to solve problems on their own.

But, as a recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics showed, today, American kids have fewer and fewer of those opportunities — and, likely as a result, feel like they have less ability to handle their own problems.xiii

So, yes: Helping our kids does mean letting them spend less time in the online abyss. But it'll also mean giving them more freedom. Freedom to fail. Freedom to succeed. Freedom to get their feelings hurt. Freedom to gain confidence they never knew they could have.

That’ll always be scary for parents. But let’s face it: so are most things that are necessary to help children transform into adults.

It may be tough, but it’s the right thing to do for our children.

And, also, probably the right thing to do for E.T.

Source(s)

  1. The Anxious Generation — Jonathan Haidt, pg. 64
  2. Teens, Smartphones & Texting  Pew Research Center
  3. The Common Sense Census: Plugged-in Parents of Tweens and Teens  Northwestern University (Center on Media and Human Development)
  4. "Teens, Social Media and Technology 2023" (Monica Anderson, Michelle Faverio and Jeffrey Gottfried)  Pew Research Center
  5. The Anxious Generation — Jonathan Haidt, pg. 24, via U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health
  6. Ibid, pg. 27, via U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health
  7. Ibid, pg. 31, via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  8. Ibid, pg. 155, via Monitoring the Future
  9. Ibid, pg. 42
  10. Ibid, pg. 5
  11. Ibid, pg. 121, via American Time Use Study
  12. Ibid, pg. 73 
  13. "Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence" (Peter Gray, David Lancy, and David F. Bjorklund)  Journal of Pediatrics

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Sources

  1. The Anxious Generation
    Book by Jonathan Haidt
  2. Pew Research Center
    Teens, Smartphones & Texting
  3. Northwestern University (Center on Media and Human Development)
    The Common Sense Census: Plugged-in Parents of Tweens and Teens
  4. Pew Research Center
    "Teens, Social Media and Technology 2023" (Monica Anderson, Michelle Faverio and Jeffrey Gottfried)
  5. Journal of Pediatrics
    "Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence" (Peter Gray, David Lancy, and David F. Bjorklund)

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