This commentary is by Walt Ames, a writer who lives in North Calais.
Apparently, the kids are not all right.
Adolescence is a tricky journey for both parents and kids, but over the last decade the navigation has become even more fraught as traditional points of conflict subside, only to be replaced by ever more treacherous choices for teens and restless nights for the adults in their lives.
The major threats in the early 1990s — binge drinking, automobile accidents, teen pregnancy and cigarette smoking — have declined substantially, a welcome turn of events, but not the panacea parents might hope for.
Although the damage social media has done to adults’ ability to communicate isn’t necessarily shocking, the magnitude of weaponized misinformation was surprising, especially its impact on adolescents and teens. Already battered by school closures, reduced schedules and remote learning, a distinct uptick in rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm has American teens and their parents reeling, according to Jonathan Haidt’s investigation in The Atlantic, which finds similar issues happening simultaneously to their Canadian and British peers in the early 2010s, just as the large majority of young people became daily users of the major social media platforms.
While the precise cause cannot be nailed down at this point, depression and anxiety rates had been rising well before the pandemic exacerbated everyone’s emotional struggles. The Wall Street Journal reports several correlational studies, and Facebook’s own research and testimony from young people themselves all suggest a connection to social media.
In a public statement, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said, “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults are real and widespread,” pointing to “an alarming number of young people (having) struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression and thoughts of suicide” at increasing rates over the past decade.
Complicating matters further, not all social media use is negative, according to The Mayo Clinic: “Creating online identities and building social networks can provide teens with valuable support, especially those who have experienced exclusion or have disabilities or chronic illness.” Benefits may include entertainment, self-expression and the opportunity to connect with others despite geographical barriers, keeping up with current events and learning about a number of different subjects including positive behaviors.
The downside depends on a number of variables. Obviously, what kids are engaged with matters, as does their screen time, but the younger they are when they begin using social media, the more likely it will have negative impacts not only on their mental health but other important aspects of their lives.
“Depression,” Haidt explains, “makes people less likely to want to engage with new people, ideas and experiences. Anxiety makes new things seem more threatening” and these conditions have led to fewer face-to-face encounters, reducing free play as well as tolerance for diverse viewpoints and the ability to work out disputes.
One long-range implication playing out over the last decade finds that in university communities, especially as Gen Z began to arrive on campus, tolerance for a variety of speakers has systematically diminished. Attempts to disinvite speakers have risen.
The Atlantic again: “Students did not just say they disagreed with visiting speakers; some said those lectures would be dangerous, emotionally devastating, a form of violence.” These post-millennials have never known a world without smartphones and are hyper-aware of social injustice, rendering them — for better or worse — awakened, aka “woke.”
Pew Research suggests that over 20 percent of U.S. adults get their political news from social media, and with upward of 80 percent of Americans on Facebook — or Meta, as it is now known — these platforms play an increasing role in electoral politics, ranging from Howard Dean’s surprising run in 2003 to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 to the Twitter-driven campaign of POTUS Emeritus in 2016, which the New York Times called a “fundamental rewiring of human society.”
If adults are this vulnerable to the cyber siren song of these platforms and their endless stream of angry nonsense, strategic confusion and conspiracy theories, where does that leave kids?
While falling for scams and cyberbullying remain consistent threats, with the rapidly increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence expected to crank out an infinite supply of highly believable false information, the legitimately frightening prospect of social media playing an outsized role in child development becomes a stark reality.
Parental attitudes toward social media were overwhelmingly positive a decade ago. As the medium’s influence exponentially grew, permeating nearly every aspect of the culture, concerns also grew around online predators, dangerous viral trends and the distinct possibility that kids might impulsively post something such as an embarrassing photo, a mistake that could haunt them for years because they don’t realize the internet is forever.
Though their fears are well founded, there are precautions parents can undertake that will build in social media guardrails without coming off as the thought police or invading an adolescent’s privacy. But before embarking on any intervention, parents should understand that there is a clear link between younger children’s media use and parental media use, attitudes toward media and parenting styles.
Stated simply, the more a parent uses any media, the more their kids will follow suit. And more screen time equals a higher incidence of behavioral problems, reduced physical fitness and psycho-social health, and higher rates of aggression in some preschoolers, a majority of whom have their own mobile device by the age of 4.
Remembering that it’s important to delay that first log-on as long as possible, then limit screen time, parents can begin by talking openly and honestly and deciding whether their child is ready for social media and by modeling appropriate media use themselves.
With hundreds of websites and thousands of recommendations, decisions about how to proceed are difficult, but one keeps popping up. If less is better, how about none?
Without being draconian, parents can offer a variety of “real” activities that are incompatible with social media: face-to-face encounters with friends; nature walks to identify birds, insects, animal tracks; get dirty or muddy or wet or sweaty; take photographs; snowshoe; go out at night and look at the sky; have a bonfire and swap stories; climb a small mountain that has a great view; swim; fly fish — learn to live.