Parenting In The Era Of Ubiquitous Screens And Social Media

An increasing number of states are taking action against Big Tech, the internet, and social media platforms. Montana recently became the first state to entirely ban TikTok, though the enforceability of this new law remains questionable. Other states, such as Arkansas and Utah, have introduced legislation to tighten regulations on social media platforms.

There appear to be three primary objectives behind these legal actions: preventing companies from collecting data on users and their children, safeguarding children online, and striking a balance between users’ rights and responsibilities when posting content online. For instance, should a platform be held accountable if it hosts content that results in harm to someone? As of now, the US Supreme Court has ruled “no.”

As a father of three teenage girls, I find the conversations surrounding smartphones and social media deeply personal. Like many parents, I initially viewed devices as mere entertainment for my children and a means of communication in emergencies. However, my perspective changed after reading Jean Twenge’s book, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us.”

In her book, Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, argues that Generation Z (or iGen) is experiencing a fundamentally different upbringing than previous generations. She informed me that some of the most significant behavioral changes in human history coincided with the advent of smartphones. According to Twenge, today’s 12th-graders resemble eighth-graders from earlier generations, delaying participation in activities associated with independence and adulthood. They are less likely to socialize, drive, attend prom, or consume alcohol compared to their Gen X counterparts, instead spending more time scrolling through social media feeds. Though they may be physically safer, the long-term impact on their mental and brain health remains uncertain.

Twenge shared with me that she “saw just a very, very sudden change, especially in mental health but also in optimism and expectations … between millennials and iGen or Gen Z.” Her words resonated with me but also alarmed me. As a neurosurgeon, I often rely on evidence to address concerns, but when it comes to new technologies, there is a scarcity of data available. We frequently don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone have answers for them.

Consequently, my wife, Rebecca, and I found ourselves in a challenging and uneasy position: determining the appropriate age, duration, and type of screen time for our three iGen daughters based on limited information. I know I’m not alone in this struggle, as I often hear similar concerns from other parents, viewers, readers, and listeners. This is why my podcast, “Chasing Life,” dedicated an entire season to discussing this topic.

Examining the Data

Obtaining consistent statistics is challenging, but a 2023 survey conducted by reviews.org revealed that approximately 89% of American adults check their phones within 10 minutes of waking up. Astoundingly, the same survey indicated that American adults look at their phones an average of 144 times per day, or once every seven waking minutes!

The numbers for children are even more concerning. A 2022 Pew survey of individuals under 18 years old showed that 46% of American teens reported being online “almost constantly.” Additionally, 35% claimed to be “almost constantly” using one of the top five social media apps: YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook.

These statistics may not be surprising, considering the endless content available for consumption. In April 2022, data company Domo reported that over 500 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute on average. Meanwhile, an estimated 1.3 billion photos are shared on Instagram daily, according to a photo industry estimate. Furthermore, Snap Inc. stated that over 4 billion Snaps were sent each day as of 2020.

My daughters, aged 17, 16, and 14, are digital natives who have never experienced life without devices. I often think about how this is not the world they chose, but rather the one we handed to them. My youngest daughter once expressed her wish to be a millennial because that generation had phones without smartphones or social media, so they weren’t constantly tethered to their devices. She says that many teenagers today feel compelled to use social media, fearing they will be left behind otherwise.

Lessons Learned

It’s undeniable that screens and technology play a crucial role in modern life, but managing our interactions with them can be challenging. While working on this season of the podcast, I gained valuable insights from experts in the field.

To summarize my findings, I would highlight three main points:

  1. Initiate a meaningful conversation with your child, free from distractions and judgment. By discussing their screen usage, social media preferences, and feelings about online interactions, you may gain surprising insights and foster a more open dialogue. Dr. Michael Rich, co-director of the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, emphasizes the importance of understanding the pain points of young patients, saying, “I want to look more at what their life is from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep.”
  2. Avoid assuming the worst. While it’s likely that your child spends more time on screens than you’d prefer, not every individual will develop a problem. Dr. Keneisha Sinclair-McBride, a clinical psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, reminds us that social media isn’t the primary concern for most teens. She explains that the challenges faced by today’s youth are similar to those of previous generations, adding, “It’s not like every kid is going to get mental health treatment because social media is ruining their life. That is definitely not the case at all.”
  3. Keep in mind the words of author Catherine Price: “Life is what we pay attention to.” This empowering concept reminds us that we have control over our experiences. When using our devices, Price suggests asking ourselves three questions: What for? Why now? What else? She explains, “The point is just to make sure that when we’re using our devices or whatever apps are on our devices, it’s the result of an intentional choice instead of just our minds and our brains being hijacked.”

By following these guidelines and making conscious choices, we can navigate the digital landscape more effectively and maintain a healthy balance in our lives.

Navigating the world of screens While exploring the topic of problematic media use during this podcast season, I’ve considered various metaphors to describe it. Is it an addiction like substances or gambling? Are devices designed to keep us hooked? While there are similarities, one key difference is that it’s not feasible to completely avoid technology.

A more fitting analogy might be food: we need both, but we must be mindful of our consumption. Another comparison could be a car or powerful tool: useful and impressive, but requiring control and proper handling. We should view these small supercomputers as tools, not toys for young children.

Did Rebecca and I flawlessly navigate this with our girls? No, but we didn’t have a precedent. “It didn’t exist when we were young, so we are learning how to manage it ourselves,” Rebecca stated. We’re adapting to the learning curve alongside our children.

The kids will be alright Technology is neither good nor bad; it just is. Gen Z acknowledges this and wants improvements. Advocates like Emma Lembke demand change, and lawmakers and tech executives are starting to listen. Lembke told Congress, “Make no mistake, unregulated social media is a weapon of mass destruction that continues to jeopardize the safety, privacy, and well-being of all American youth. It’s time to act.”

Lembke envisions a future where social media is built differently, with more transparent algorithms, an end to autoplay, and image filters that don’t perpetuate beauty standards. She and her peers are concerned for future generations.

We must learn to make better decisions about our digital diets. Dr. Keneisha Sinclair-McBride reminds us that our time and attention are valuable resources, and we should allocate them wisely.

Starting the screentime conversation Unsure how to discuss internet and social media use with your kids? Here are some conversation prompts:

  • Describe your typical phone usage in a day.
  • How much time do you spend on your phone daily? Too much, too little, or just right?
  • What are your favorite apps, games, or platforms, and why?
  • Do you have a healthy relationship with technology and social media? What does that look like?
  • Do you have fair screentime boundaries? Are they easy to stick to? Would you change the rules?
  • Has technology ever interfered with an activity you wanted to do?
  • Do you feel pressure from friends or school to be on your phone?
  • Do you know people who misuse technology?
  • What concerns you about technology or social media?
  • Have you tried reducing screentime? Why, and did it work?
  • Are you hopeful for your future? Why or why not?

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