I still think about the dilemma I faced as a parent over whether to give my kids smartphones, even though a decade has passed since.
When they were in junior school, my daughters craved these magical devices. They claimed they would become social outcasts without phones because “everyone else has them”. Even other adults seemed to be on their side. Some parents insisted that phones were a “safety” device, enabling kids in trouble to call for help. The tipping point came when a lawyer I know noted that it was good for children like mine, whose parents had separated, to have a phone to stay in contact with the parent who wasn’t around. Eventually, I put aside my scruples and caved in.
I’ve often wondered whether I made a mistake, and this week I discovered a new reason to worry. A group called Sapien Labs, which studies mental health, has polled almost 28,000 18-24-year-olds. Part of Gen Z, Sapien describes this cohort as “the first generation who went through adolescence with this technology”. It’s no surprise that this research shows that Gen Z’s mental state is worse than earlier generations. As psychologist Jean Twenge notes in Generations, teenage mental health has worsened sharply in the past decade, the period after smartphones went mainstream. Covid-19 has exacerbated the problem, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What’s most interesting, however, is that Sapien tracked the age at which respondents first got cell phones and compared this with their reported mental health. This showed a clear pattern: kids who received phones at a younger age had worse mental health, even after adjusting for reported incidents of childhood trauma. The share of females experiencing mental health challenges ranged from 74 per cent for those who received their first smartphone at age six to 46 per cent who received it at age 18. For males, the numbers were 42 per cent and 36 per cent.
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The pattern was particularly stark in one of six mental health categories, known as the “social self”, which tracks how we view ourselves and relate to others. Sapien attributed this pattern not only to increased technology use but to decreasing interactions with others. “Given the statistics of five to eight hours a day spent online during childhood, we estimate that this could displace as much as 1,000 to 2,000 hours a year that would otherwise be spent in various face-to-face social interactions,” they write.
This is before we consider other impacts of technology, from the content children can view online to cyberbullying and round-the-clock pressure to interact with social media. “A phone in itself is not dangerous but a smartphone loaded up with apps becomes a portal to God knows what,” says Jonathan Haidt, a New York University psychology professor who has written extensively on these issues. “When a child has its own smartphone and can use it at will, you get serious problems with sleep deprivations and addiction.”
What are the solutions? Progress on content has been made as tech companies face growing pressure to exert some controls. YouTube recently teamed up with America’s National Eating Disorders Association to limit harmful content. It also helps that a new generation of social media influencers, such as Linda Sun and Natacha Océane, are promoting body positivity and anti-anorexia messages. But toxic material remains rife. And there is so far little debate about the question I once wrestled with. Should we simply ban younger kids from using smartphones? Or at least suppress devices with internet access?
Some observers might say this is impossible or argue that one of the reasons for the shocking survey results is that diagnoses and awareness of mental health are higher than before. Others might like to see controls. Either way, Haidt thinks there is “a classic collective action problem” making it difficult for parents or schools to impose controls or limits on phone use without “centralised norms”. He thinks, say, that schools should ask kids to leave phones in lockers while in class, but knows that parents might object since they worry they cannot “reach their child if something happens, like a school shooting”.
There are small signs of hope. In Texas, a “Wait Until 8th” grade movement has emerged, with more than 45,000 families signing up. And norms do shift, though as the history of tobacco shows, it took decades even with hard evidence of the damage done by cigarettes.
If you have young children, brace yourself for the battle ahead. If only some genius entrepreneur would invent a dumb cell phone that would appeal to kids but without the addictive lure of the internet. That would be real tech innovation.
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