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New book explores mental health impact of 'the phone-based childhood'


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A prominent psychologist links rising rates of depression and anxiety among U.S. adolescents to the spread of social media and smartphone use. In a month-old book, Jonathan Haidt of New York University looks into what he calls "the rapid decline of adolescent mental health." His widely discussed book is titled "The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness." It traces a critical cultural shift: "the decline of the play-based childhood" and "the rise of the phone-based childhood." Teens spend an average of nearly five hours every day on social media apps, including TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, according to a 2023 survey of more than 1,500 young people in this country.

As that change from unsupervised play with friends to screen scrolling accelerated in the past decade, the professor writes: "We ended up overprotecting children in the real world while underprotecting them in the virtual world." The impact, as he sees it, includes fragmented attention, stress, sadness, eating and sleep disorders, self-harm and other mental health problems. "If this was childhood cancer or childhood car accidents, or if we had seen these significant changes anywhere else, we would all be losing our minds about this," says Gov. Spencer Cox, R-Utah, who last year signed laws intended to limit kids' access to social platforms -- including time restrictions and requirements that parents and guardians can see private messages and posts. (A rights group is challenging the laws in court as unconstitutional limits on speech and association.) Another Republican governor, Ron DeSantis of Florida, last month signed a law banning children under 14 from having their own social media accounts. Parental approval is needed to open accounts for users aged 14 and 15. "Social media harms children in a variety of ways," the governor says.

Haidt, who's raising two adolescents with his wife, suggests: "If we want to keep our kids safe, get them off of Instagram and send them out to play. . . . All mammals need free play, and lots of it, to wire up their brains during childhood to prepare them for adulthood." He recommends that students not have a smartphone until high school and not get accounts on most social platforms until age 16. "This will become easier to do if we can support legislators who are trying to raise the age of 'internet adulthood' from today's 13 (with no verification) to 16 (with mandatory age verification)." Initial optimism about the impact of tech on young users were naïve, the New York scholar believes: "Early in the internet era, and in the social media era, people assumed that virtual interactions were just as good as real world ones."

Author says: "Few of us understood what was happening in children's virtual worlds and we lacked the knowledge to protect them from tech companies that had designed their products to be addictive." – Jonathan Haidt, NYU professor

Reality check: Separating young teens and preteens from smartphones and social media is a tough sell. Parents often want to be able to text or call during the school day.

State lawmaker says: "The internet has become a dark alley for our children where predators target them and dangerous social media leads to higher rates of depression, self-harm, and even suicide." – Florida House Speaker Paul Renner

Front Page Talking Points is written by Alan Stamm for, Copyright 2024

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Common Core State Standard
SL.CCS.1/2/3/4 Grades 6-12: An essay of a current news event is provided for discussion to encourage participation, but also inspire the use of evidence to support logical claims using the main ideas of the article. Students must analyze background information provided about a current event within the news, draw out the main ideas and key details, and review different opinions on the issue. Then, students should present their own claims using facts and analysis for support.

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