How many friends’ phone numbers can you remember from your childhood?
Do you recall dialling their home phone, introducing yourself to their mum and asking if you could please speak with your friend?
You’d spend an hour on the phone, the curly cord wrapped around the doorway into your parent’s bedroom so you could get some privacy from your inquisitive brother’s ears.
You’d have one on one conversations. Share your secrets. Talk about your day. Confide in one another.
Other than that you left your day at school.
Home was your safe haven. The bully couldn’t reach you. The embarrassing moments couldn’t follow you. At home, you belonged. You no longer needed to try and fit in; not in the way you needed to at school.
At home, you could rest. Recharge. Renew.
You’d confide in your mum as she watered the plants. Walk the dogs with your Dad. Bounce on the trampoline. Regain your resilience to go back and do it all again tomorrow.
There was a balance. Clear boundaries. A yin and yang. A clear distinction between time and realities.
But all that has changed.
School and social dynamics now follow kids 24/7. There is no escape. There is no rest. There is no safe haven.
With the internet in their pockets, our kids are constantly ‘connected’. With the internet in their pockets, childhood is under threat.
In his book, Raising Emotionally Resilient Teens and Tweens, Kim John Payne says that “About half of all peer abuse or hyper-controlling issues now involve some form of cyberbullying, and the numbers are on the rise.”
While Payne is obviously concerned he asks the obvious question, “shouldn’t we have expected far-reaching social consequences when we put some of the most powerful tools humankind has ever invented (smartphones, tablets, computers) into our children’s hands while exercising minimal supervision?”
In his research, Payne found that kids who are cyberbullied feel scared and hurt, and develop a negative self-image. Here are more sobering cyberbullying statistics about our kids:
- 25 per cent engaged in self-harm
- 26 per cent had suicidal thoughts
- 37 per cent developed depression
- 41 per cent developed social anxiety
- 60 per cent of teenagers have been cyberbullied
- 70 per cent of teenagers have had rumours spread about them online
- 20 per cent of tweens (ages ten to twelve) have been cyberbullied
- 90 per cent of twelve-year-olds are using social media
- 81 per cent of kids feel it is easier to get away with bullying online
These numbers are enough to terrify any parent.
And as I write this, I’m saying “me too!”. My son has hit double digits and this world of smartphone decisions will be upon us in no time.
So, from where does the solution arise? One thing I do know is that the same environment that created the problem isn’t the one to fix it.
Big tech doesn’t have our kid’s best interests at heart – to them, our children’s attention is the commodity they wish to mine and they’ll do all they can to secure and addict our kids to the same devices we find so hard to resist as adults.
In the digital age, where the line between the real world and the virtual one has become increasingly blurred, the responsibility falls on us, as conscious parents, to create a safe, balanced environment for our children.
This blog post aims to explore the profound impacts of smartphones and social media on our kids’ mental health, provide insights from various research and experts, and empower parents with the knowledge they need to protect and promote the well-being of the next generation.
What does the research say?
The science is compelling; the earlier kids get smartphones, the worse their mental health is as adults.
The effects of smartphones and social media don’t just reside in the mental sphere either, they extend to cognitive and health deficits as well.
“We’re sort of in the midst of a natural kind of uncontrolled experiment on the next generation of children.”
Dr Gayle Dowling, National Institute of Health
Child Mind Institute reports that “a 2017 study of over half a million eighth through 12th graders found that the number exhibiting high levels of depressive symptoms increased by 33 percent between 2010 and 2015. In the same period, the suicide rate for girls in that age group increased by 65 percent.”
Smartphones made their debut in 2007, and a mere eight years later, in 2015, they were in the hands of 92 percent of teens and young adults. Jean Twenge, PhD, a psychologist from San Diego State University and the main author of the study, notes a parallel increase in depressive symptoms alongside the surge in smartphone usage during this timeframe, maintaining this correlation even when analysed on an annual basis.
A more recent report by Sapiens Lab of over 27,000 young adults found that “mental wellbeing consistently improved with older age of first ownership of a smartphone or tablet, with a steeper change in females compared to males. The percentage of females experiencing mental health challenges decreased from 74% for those who received their first smartphone at age 6, to 46% for those who received it at age 18. For males, the percentage declined from 42% at age 6 to 36% at age 18.”
The Sapiens Lab report is part of a wider study called the Global Mind Project; a study into mental health with over 1 million participants worldwide. The study has found that children as young as 6 years of age who were given access to their own smartphone show decreased mood, self-worth, adaptability, resilience, cognition, sleep quality, appetite and physical health than those who first accessed a smartphone at age 18.
Research by the US National Institute of Health, looking at the effects of phone and social media use on children shows clear evidence of the effects it is having on their biology: MRI scans showed a premature thinning of the cortex, the area of the brain involved in processing information from the five senses, in 9-10 year old children who spend between 3-7 hours on a screen per day.
“If this generation is going to be named after anything, the iPhone just might be it: according to a fall 2015 marketing survey, two out of three US teens owned an iPhone, about as complete a market saturation as possible for a product. The complete dominance of the smartphone among teens has had ripple effects across every area of their lives, from their social interactions to their mental health.”
Jean M. Twenge
When and why did this happen?
In 2012 there was a sharp and well-documented decline in the mental health of teenagers in developed countries, especially for girls. So, what happened in 2012 to cause the decline?
While it’s hard to pin down causality, there is sufficient evidence to strongly correlate two related phenomena: the emergence of smartphones and the explosion of social media. Together, they constituted a formidable ‘perfect storm,’ leaving an indelible mark on the mental and emotional well-being of an entire generation.
“Is it just a coincidence that the first global generation to grow up on smartphones became the first global generation to have lower well-being than the one before them?”
Social psychologist and author of ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ Jonathon Haidt and his lead researcher Zach Raush have tirelessly studied and written a series of three Substack posts exploring this sudden and severe decline in mental health internationally.
From depression and self-harm in US teens to mental health in Canadian men and women, to happiness trends in UK teens, to psychological distress in Australian young adults and anxiety diagnoses in New Zealanders, the data is as stunning as it is shocking. Globally, each graph presenting the data took a sudden sharp turn for the worse in 2012. Sadly the trends are continuing and they’re worse for girls.
Haidt and Raush conclude that “there is only one theory we know of that can explain why the same thing happened to girls in so many countries at the same time: the rapid global movement from flip phones (where you can’t do social media) to smartphones and the phone-based childhood. The first smartphone with a front-facing camera (the iPhone 4) came out in 2010, just as teens were trading in their flip phones for smartphones in large numbers. (Few teens owned an iPhone in its first few years). Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, which gave the platform a huge boost in publicity and users. So 2012 was the first year that very large numbers of girls in the developed world were spending hours each day posting photos of themselves and scrolling through hundreds of carefully edited photos of other girls.”
Children and teens are most affected
Haidt reports that among the most important findings in the research is that in all the regions studied, mental health is the worst for the youngest generations.
Haidt says that it didn’t used to be this way and that “there is a well-known finding in happiness research that, across nearly all nations, happiness or well-being forms a U-shaped curve across the lifespan (See Rauch, 2018). Young adults and people in their 60s and 70s are happier than those in middle age. But that may be changing, especially for women, as Gen Z (born in and after 1996) enters young adulthood.”
A literature review looking at the effects of smartphone and social media use in youth shows similar findings: their use is implicated in the increase in mental distress, self-injurious behaviours and suicidality among youth particularly in girls. The same review also noted that heavy smartphone use and media multitasking resulted in chronic sleep deprivation, and reduced cognitive control, academic performance and socioemotional functioning.
In short, there is no part of our children’s psyches and beings that this technology is not affecting.
The unique vulnerability of teenage brains
Second, only to toddlerhood, the teen years represent one of the most rapid periods of brain development. Our children’s brains aren’t fully developed until their mid-late 20’s.
Here are just a few things we know about the teen brain:
- Adolescence is a period of brain development focused on fine-tuning brain functions.
- The prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and planning, is one of the last areas to mature.
- Social experiences influence brain development during adolescence.
- Stress can affect teens differently, increasing their risk of mental illnesses.
- Many teens don’t get enough sleep, impacting their attention and mental health.
Having an addictive miniature computer, loaded with social media gives our children the constant ability to compare themselves to the curated versions of everyone else. This is a recipe for head-on collision with mental health struggles.
Having a miniature computer in their pocket is the exact opposite of what our children’s brains, bodies and spirits need to flourish in the world today.
Picking my son up from school a few days ago, I saw something I hadn’t seen before; one of the young students sitting and waiting for their parent to arrive, staring at a smartphone.
Here was a 12 year old boy surrounded by views of the ocean, flanked by trees lost in a device the size of his palm unable to look up, not seeing who or what was around him anymore – just like we witness adults do as they sit in a restaurant, zoning out of in person connection and into their digital worlds on their device.
I’ve heard Dr. Shefali say that the moment we put a smartphone in our child’s hands marks the end of childhood. I couldn’t help but feel saddened and saw how these words were ringing so true in real life.
The question is do we really need more research to tell us what is already evident when we lift our eyes and start to look around at what these devices are doing to our children. Do we need anyone else to tell us that our kids need connection to the world around them, not the world inside their device?
The Devil is in our Phones
The late Steve Jobs, creator of the iPhone and iPad, famously prohibited his kids from using either of these devices. And he’s not alone.
It is common for the very people who develop social media and smartphone technology – aka Silicon Valley billionaires – to withhold phone access for their kids for as long as possible. In interviews and conversations here’s what a few of them had to say on the subject:
“It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Sean Parker, Former President of Facebook
“I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.” Athena Chavarria, Former Executive Assistant at Facebook
“My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, they say none of their friends have the same rules… that’s because we’ve seen the dangers of technology firsthand, I’ve seen it in myself, and I don’t want to see it in my kids.” Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple
Finding Balance in Introducing Technology to the Next Generation
As we navigate the ebbs and flows of our digital landscape, I’m reminded that it’s not all doom and gloom. There are unmistakable positives that come along with our modern technology.
As an online business owner, I’m conscious that the internet and social media has been a springboard for innovation, growth, and connection, enabling me to build a community around natural parenting – an opportunity that were nearly inconceivable just a couple of decades ago.
Yet, when it comes to our children and their introduction to technology, particularly smartphones, it becomes a narrative of balance and timing. The question isn’t about shielding them entirely from the digital world but rather guiding them on how to use these powerful tools responsibly.
It’s about teaching them the value of connection beyond the screen, while also recognizing the potential of technology to broaden their horizons. It is our responsibility to model and teach this balance, ensuring they become tech-savvy individuals who can wield technology as a tool for growth rather than have technology wield them.
It’s Time to Reclaim Our Children
While we’ve recognized the incredible advantages that technology brings to our lives, including the opportunities it offers to our children, it’s equally important to address the potential downsides with clear eyes and a strong resolve.
With access to a digital world at their fingertips, and social media feeding them with consistent dopamine hits in the forms of likes, comments or shares, as well as consistent doubt when in the absence of those things, parents are losing their children to this other world.
Smartphones are akin to slot machines and have been shown to induce the same brain changes as those addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling – it’s our responsibility as caregivers to save our children from their addictive grasp before it’s too late.
We must ask ourselves what life we want to gift our children? How can we help to build their resilience and bolster their mental health? And how much are we willing to play roulette with their well-being just so they can keep up with the times by owning a smartphone earlier than is necessary or good for them?
As conscious parents, we need to step in and take responsibility for setting boundaries and limits with our children.
We need to hold the line and insist on our kids being kids for a little longer.