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Smartphones and Kids

graphic image of smartphone with crying child coming out of screen
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By: Jean M. Twenge – nationalreview.com – March 28, 2024
Parents need government to help protect children from social-media tyranny

Imagine that a company began mass-producing a new toy. This was not a toy for little kids; instead, it appealed most to adolescents. The toy became wildly popular, first with teens and eventually with younger children as well. The toy was so engaging that some teens stayed up until 2 a.m. just to play with it. Before long, teens spent so much time using the toy that they cut back on socializing in person.

This is not a fictional story. The toy is the smartphone, and this is the story of teens’ lives beginning around 2012.

Smartphones offer many things, but among the most attractive to teens are social-media apps such as Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube. By 2023, U.S. teens were spending an average of nearly five hours a day using social media, according to Gallup.

That is an extraordinary amount of time. But does this matter? Some have argued that social media are just a newer way for teens to communicate with their friends, the same as always, and therefore nothing to worry about.

One way to answer the “Does it matter?” question is to ask whether social-media use is linked to mental health. If it is, what can we do to protect kids? And should keeping kids safe online be primarily up to parents, or is it time for lawmakers to step in?

The growing popularity of smartphones and social media over the past decade and a half has fundamentally changed teens’ lives. With communication moving online, Gen Z teens became much less likely to hang out with their friends in person. American teens and young adults spent about an hour a day socializing in person in 2012, but that figure sank to a half hour a day by 2022. They also went out with their friends much less frequently.

Technology use can also interfere with sleep, and it has: Half of U.S. teens were significantly sleep-deprived in 2022, up from a third in 2012. It’s not a coincidence that 2012 was the first year the majority of Americans owned a smartphone and around the time that daily social-media use became nearly universal among teens.

This generational shift in how teens spent their leisure time (more time online and less time with friends in person, along with less time sleeping) coincided with a striking increase in loneliness, depression, and unhappiness. More than twice as many American teens suffered from major depression in 2022 than did in 2011, with nearly all of the increase occurring before the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020. These statistics are from a screening of thousands of randomly chosen teens across the country, not just those who have sought help from a professional. Thus the increases cannot be explained away by overdiagnosis or greater help-seeking.

After staying stable for two decades, the number of American teens reporting that they felt lonely, left out, useless, or joyless suddenly increased after 2012. Teen happiness, which had increased between the early 1990s and the early 2010s, suddenly declined after 2012. Within a few years, it had fallen to all-time lows.

Could these trends be caused by greater willingness among teens to admit to mental-health issues or unhappiness? If so, we would not expect to see any changes in objectively measured behaviors related to mental-health issues. But those changes have occurred: Emergency-room admissions for self-harm, a behavior linked to depression, doubled among older teen girls and more than quadrupled among ten- to 14-year-old girls in the U.S. between 2010 and 2021. These data are collected directly from hospitals by the CDC and so are not influenced by changes in self-reports. Even more troubling, suicide rates among American children and teens have doubled since 2010, another trend that can’t be explained by self-report biases.

In short, more kids and teens are suffering from mental-health issues, and this trend began long before the Covid-19 pandemic. Adolescent mental health, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has declared, is “the crisis of our time.”

But how do we know that smartphones and social media are the cause of the crisis? Isn’t it possible that something else caused the startling increase in teen depression?

The changes in the way teens spend their time don’t just coincide with the increases in depression and loneliness; these increases are large, widespread, and of significant impact. An alternative explanation would need to have the same qualities.

For example, perhaps the increase in depression is due to factors such as school shootings, the opioid crisis, or the increase in students’ college debt. These explanations, however, are all specific to the U.S. If any of them were the reason for the increase in teen depression and loneliness, we would not see similar upticks in other countries where they are less prevalent. But, in fact, similar trends appear among teens in the U.K., Europe, and Latin America, with anxiety and loneliness beginning to increase in 2012 — just as in the U.S. In a 2021 paper, my co-authors and I found that loneliness increased in lockstep with internet use across countries but was unconnected to economic cycles, trends in income inequality, or changes in family size.

Perhaps depression has increased because teens are anxious about climate change. Concerns about climate change have been prevalent since the 1990s, however, and depression did not begin its recent rise until 2012. Also, as Jonathan Haidt points out in his most recent book, The Anxious Generation, the usual response to global challenges is not depression but its opposite, action and activism. Moreover, why would worries around climate change increase loneliness? That’s not at all clear. But millions of teens alone in their rooms scrolling through social media instead of getting together in person is an obvious recipe for greater loneliness.

Another possibility is that depression increased because teens are now less independent. It’s true that today’s teens are less likely to have a driver’s license, work at a paid job, or go out on dates. But declines in those activities began in the late 1990s, long before the increases in depression beginning in 2012. Plus, the waning in teen independence also means declines in alcohol use, sex, and pregnancy, trends that should be positive for teen well-being. It’s certainly possible that the decline in independence and the rise in digital media have worked together — for example, both lead to teens’ spending less time with friends in person. But the lack of teen independence alone cannot account for the rise in depression that began in the 2010s.

Beginning around 2012, teens unwittingly became part of a giant natural experiment that moved much of their social lives from in-person to online and shortened their sleep. Nothing else can so thoroughly explain why teen depression rates doubled even before the pandemic and why teen loneliness increased around the world.

The convergence of these trends is powerful evidence, because it captures the effects of technological change at the level of the group. Even teens who didn’t use social media or who spent little time on their phones were affected as the norm for social interaction changed. The data also defy the alternative explanation that depression causes social-media use, instead of social-media use causing depression, at least at the group level. For that to be so, one would need to argue that an unexplained increase in teen depression caused more of them to buy smartphones and spend more time on social media — an explanation that defies logic. It is much more likely that smartphones and social media became increasingly popular, leading to the increase in teen depression.

Of course, we should also consider the link between social-media use and depression among individual teens. In studies of tens of thousands of teens, the more hours a day a teen spent on social media, the more likely that teen was to be depressed or unhappy. Even so, many researchers contend that the link is “small.” But what does “small” mean, exactly? The correlation between social-media use and depression among girls is often around .15 to .20. For context, the correlation between childhood lead exposure and adult IQ is .11. The correlation between obesity and feeling dissatisfied with life among teens is .10. Far from being small, then, the link between social-media use and depression is similar to or even larger than other associations usually considered important.

It’s also crucial to put these numbers in practical terms. In one large study of teens, those who used social media heavily were twice as likely as nonusers to be depressed. Most parents would not consider a doubling of depression risk to be small. These links are more than large enough to have caused the increases in depression since 2012.

In addition, emerging research shows that the brains of teens who frequently use social media exhibit more activation in the reward-sensitive dopamine pathway. In other words, social media might be changing the way teens’ brains work.

But are we seeing more than correlation — is there a causal link between social-media use and depression? Earlier this year, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress, “The existing body of scientific work has not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health.” Zuckerberg is, in a word, wrong.

The gold standard for establishing causation is the random-assignment experiment. For example, a drug trial might give some people the drug (the experimental group) and others the placebo (the control group). Several studies have randomly assigned people to give up or reduce use of social media (the experimental group) or continue their usual use (the control group). After two or three weeks, those who gave up or reduced their social-media use were less depressed than the control group. In addition, in a finding very similar to Meta’s own internal research, viewing photoshopped images of people on Instagram, compared with viewing non-manipulated images, caused teen girls to feel worse about their bodies.

Then there are the natural experiments. For example, Facebook became available at different times on different college campuses. Researchers found that college students’ depression increased after Facebook was introduced. Similarly, the rollout of high-speed internet across Spain coincided with more teen girls being hospitalized for mental-health issues.

Given all of this evidence, it seems likely that the rise of social media was at least one key cause of the sudden increase in teen depression. If so, helping kids and teens find a better balance between their technology use and the rest of their activities might finally reverse the seemingly inexorable rise of depression among our children. But how do we do that? And who should take the primary responsibility, parents or the government?

For many people, the answer to the question of who should take primary responsibility for children’s social-media use is simple: the parents. It’s parents’ sole responsibility, this argument goes, to make sure their children do not use social media when they are too young to handle it. It’s also the parents’ responsibility to make sure that kids and teens don’t spend too much time using social media and that when they do, they do so safely.

But there are at least two significant problems with this argument. First, access to social media is almost completely unregulated. Minors do not need their parents’ permission to download social-media apps. Children can simply agree to the disclaimers and start using the app.

In addition, social-media apps do not verify children’s ages. A 1998 law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), specifies that children need to be 13 for websites to collect their data, but children can simply check a box saying they are 13 or older or choose a different birth year. As a result, many children and teens have social-media accounts without their parents’ knowledge.

In a 2022 survey, seven out of ten fifth- and sixth-graders — all of whom were younger than 13 — said they spent at least some time on social media. Among fifth- and sixth-graders whose parents explicitly forbade them to have social media, four out of ten did so anyway.

Some parents take significant steps to keep their children off social media, only to find them completely immersed in the apps. One eleven-year-old girl opened her first Instagram account without her parents’ knowledge, hiding it behind a calculator app on her iPad. Within two years, she had developed a severe eating disorder. Her parents have since sued Meta, the parent company of Instagram, alleging that the app caused their daughter’s mental-health issues.

It’s not surprising that kids can’t stay away. Social-media companies have poured billions into making their products as engaging as possible; the more time users spend on an app, the more money a company makes. Even with the app closed, notifications entice users back. Algorithms powered by artificial intelligence learn what keeps a user watching and serve up similar content. Teens who intend to watch TikTok videos for a few minutes often report that they look up and an hour has passed.

Parents today are in an almost impossible position, asked to regulate their children’s use of apps that are freely accessible on nearly every device. Parents may install parental controls on their children’s smartphones — or even hold back from giving their children phones — only to find them using Instagram on their laptops.

Even if parents lock down their kids’ personal laptops, many students have school laptops, which do not allow parental controls. You might think school laptops would be restricted to educational websites only, but that’s not the case. My own children’s school laptops have unrestricted access to YouTube, so the same device they use for their homework offers the temptation of endless video-watching. How can I, or any parent, know that “I’m doing my homework” is the truth unless I am looking over my children’s shoulders all the time?

The second problem with placing responsibility primarily on parents is the group nature of the problem. The parent who does not give her teen a phone or keeps him off social media risks seeing him become socially isolated. When Snapchat or Instagram becomes the default communication tool in the friend group, your offline kid can quickly become the odd one out. In the delicate tapestry of middle-school friendships, pulling on a single thread may cause the relationship to unravel. At these ages, fitting in is all-important.

Imagine a fairy godmother gives you one wish. You choose eliminating social media for all elementary- and middle-school-age kids. That way, “all of my friends have it” would no longer be true. No kid could lie about her age and get on TikTok at the age of seven, which is laughably easy to do now. When your kids were using their school laptop, you would know they were actually doing something school-related instead of mindlessly watching video after video.

We don’t need a fairy godmother to do this for us. We just need better laws. At the dawn of the internet in 1998, COPPA set the age for “internet adulthood” at 13, not for any developmental reason but as a compromise with the tech companies. But how many people truly believe that middle school — that time of nascent puberty, heightened bullying, and awkward self-consciousness — is the perfect time to introduce social media? This law is long overdue for change.

The research backs this up: The link between social-media time and depression is larger among children and younger teens. If the minimum age for social media were raised to 16, adolescents would have more time to develop socially, emotionally, and cognitively before setting up accounts. By 16, the association between social-media time and depression is lower; this is also the age at which we trust teens to drive, and so we assume they are more capable of mature judgment. With the age minimum at 16, middle-school students would no longer feel left out if they were the only ones without social media — none of their peers would have it, either.

Mental health is only one reason to gate by age. Social media allow adult strangers to easily contact children and teens, leading to many cases of sexual exploitation. It is also frequently used by drug dealers to sell their wares, which has led to teen deaths from overdoses. Even simply enforcing the existing age limit of 13 would be progress.

Enforcement of any limit will require users to verify their age to download a social-media app. Some apps already achieve this by requiring an ID or a pending charge to a credit card. Age verification does not need to be done by the apps themselves; it can be performed by a third party. There are now so many companies that verify age online that they have their own trade association. The Age Verification Providers Association lists twelve ways in which age may be verified online.

Several states, including Utah and Arkansas, have already passed bills raising the age for social-media access to 16 and requiring age verification. The laws were immediately challenged in court, however, and have not yet gone into effect.

Some, such as Charles C. W. Cooke in these pages, have argued against online age restrictions, partially because of practical challenges. It’s true that it would be very difficult to keep kids and young teens off every website not suitable for them. But if age minimums were enacted for opening social-media accounts, that would at least keep kids off algorithmic sites, with minimum friction for everyone else (as verification would happen just once, not every time a user logged in). Cooke also protests that age verification involves sending “one’s private information across the Web,” but that objection seems odd in an era when people routinely splash their family pictures and political opinions across social media and shop online using their credit cards. Social-media companies already have access to vast amounts of our personal information; is it all that noteworthy that they might also know we are 16 or older, particularly if that verification were administered through a third party?

Another solution is for schools to ban student smartphone use during the school day. Not only would this benefit students’ learning, but it would give them a break from social media for six hours a day. It would also give them more opportunity for in-person socializing during lunch and breaks. Schools that have implemented bans report that students are less distracted in class and talk to one another more. Consensus is growing: Late last year, the Washington Post editorial board called for schools to ban phones, and several states have passed or are considering laws requiring schools to ban the use of smartphones during school hours.

Even without such policies in place, there are still some things parents can do. First, make it a family rule that phones are not in bedrooms overnight. Device use can be difficult to manage during the day, but having no devices in the bedroom during sleep time is unambiguous. The benefit of such a rule is supported by a raft of data showing that smartphones and tablets interfere with sleep. If your teen responds with “But I have to have my phone in my bedroom overnight because it’s my alarm clock,” then buy her an alarm clock.

Second, delay giving your children internet-enabled phones for as long as possible. Most elementary-school-age children don’t need a phone at all. If they need a phone for calling you when they’re away from home, give them a flip phone. If they are middle-school-age and want to text their friends, give them a phone designed for kids and younger teens that has no internet access and no social media (some examples: Troomi, Gabb, Pinwheel). As the default, these phones allow only calling, texting, and taking pictures; some allow other apps with parental permission, but not social-media apps.

In my family, our rule is that you get your first smartphone when you get your driver’s license. Even after that milestone — which our 17-year-old has reached — we’ve installed parental controls that disable app downloads. That way, installing a social-media app or a game is a discussion, not something done without our knowledge. Plus, there are many ways teens can communicate electronically without social media, including text and videochat.

There is broad agreement that adolescents are in the midst of a mental-health crisis. If children’s and teens’ unfettered access to social media is even partially responsible for this crisis, as seems hard to deny, that might be good news, because it means we can do something about it. It’s unlikely that we will be able to influence genetics, the largest single cause of depression, anytime soon. Other causes, such as poverty, abuse, and loss, are also difficult to resolve. But putting more regulation on children’s and teens’ use of social media is straightforward and would cost very little.

One way to consider the issue is with a cost–benefit analysis. The benefits of keeping children and young teens off social media would include not only more time for sleep and in-person socializing, which in turn would contribute to improved mental health, but also a reduction in the sexual exploitation of minors. The costs would be minimal, amounting to removal of one option among many for kids and teens to communicate and gather information electronically. They would still have the rest of the internet, along with texting and videochat. And in any case, they would gain access to social media at 16.

The calculus is different for keeping things as they are, with elementary- and middle-school students routinely using social media and teens spending five hours a day on the apps. Here, the primary benefit is more profit for the tech companies. The cost is that staggering numbers of teens feel lonely and useless, more teens suffer from major depression, more girls between the ages of ten and 14 are admitted to hospitals for self-harm, and more children and teens take their own lives. Put this way, the choice is clear: Keep children and young teens off social media.

Last year, leaked internal documents revealed that Meta valued each teen user at $270 of “lifetime value.” Is it really necessary to argue that our children’s mental health is worth more than that?

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Source: Smartphones Are Damaging Our Kids | National Review