As the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, there has been another type of scourge growing for years, this one involving the effects of media and technology on youth. For any good that has come of the technological revolution for our kids and adolescents, the research continues to pour in about all sorts of serious problems this is causing in regard to their physical, psychological, social, and spiritual health.
Most recently, a Wall Street Journal report indicates that Facebook has been hiding research conducted over the past three years, which clearly indicates that Instagram is harming youth, especially teen girls. Among many findings, almost a third of girls polled revealed that when they were feeling poorly about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. 6% of American users and 13% of British users traced their suicidal thoughts back to Instagram; in general, the data was clear that for many youth, Instagram is an unhealthy place to be. Meanwhile, 40% of Instagram users are under the age of 22. As infuriating as hiding the research is, Facebook, which owns Instagram, clearly states in their documents that youth have been and continue to be one of its major targets for growth. They are currently working on building an Instagram platform for youth under the age of 13, all the while seemingly ignoring its own research about how toxic this platform is for younger users.
Imagine if you were on a team growing and marketing a product, and in the course of your development, you discovered that it was poisonous for some of your consumers, especially those who are most vulnerable. Yet despite possessing clear evidence of its toxicity, you not only hide this information from the public (who continues to consume your product), you actually decide to further market and engineer it for the very individuals impacted the most, all because it promises to increase your profit margin.
For (I hope) all of us reading this, not only does this sound incredibly greedy, but it also sounds downright uncaring and sinful. Yet in spite of the absurdity of this idea, this is exactly what Facebook has been doing for years, and likely will continue to do despite the recent damning news. Yet before I “call out” Facebook alone, it should be noted that stories abound over the past two decades about how the tech industry (who is not alone, by the way) continues to take advantage of people in the name of profit. As one of many examples, three years ago the Wall State Journal reported that two big Apple investors called out the company in regards to clear evidence that “iPhones and children are a toxic pair.” Research related to addiction and psychological maladjustment for youth and smartphones had clearly indicated that these phones were causing significant harm for our youth; nevertheless, Apple was continuing to forge ahead in marketing these products to younger and younger kids (not to mention its other products in schools). Despite this admonition, I have yet to see how Apple has made any improvements in this area while they continue to infiltrate the youth market.
For the last decade plus, I have been speaking and writing widely about the topic of youth and technology, and for any who are interested in learning more about research and considerations on this matter, most of my articles are archived at my personal website: www.james-schroeder.com. Through all of this, I have come to a few dynamic conclusions. One, social media and smartphones were never designed for our youth nor are they prepared to use them, even with regular monitoring and supervision. The psychological and neurological research of the past few decades has clearly demonstrated that just like drinking alcohol, gambling, or owning a credit card, our youth are simply not equipped to manage tech as it is currently being used. The reality is that as even adults struggle mightily to manage their tech in a healthy way, our youth’s intellectual resources and life experiences are outstripped by devices and associated freedoms that are simply too much for them to manage. And I can tell you that our nearly yearlong waitlist (and growing) for each provider in our psychology department is just one of many omens that highlight this reality.
Two, technology is here to stay, but there is simply no reason that it has stay with our youth as it is currently. Used strategically, it is a great tool, but this is not how most of our youth are using it, nor are we as parents and teachers sanctioning it in a healthy way. We simply must take more assertive steps if we are going to stem the significant negative tide of health and well-being for our youth that tech is partly responsible for; although monitoring and education is important, it is insufficient in curbing the harmful trends. Nothing will change unless we as caregivers and professionals take intentional steps to do what is true, right, and beautiful, not trendy, convenient, and uninformed. It’s time we rescue our youth from the chains in which technology has confined them. Ironically, it is our youth more than anyone else (whether they realize it or not) who are pleading with us to protect them in this way. Signs indicate they are growing weary of being addicted to their phones (50% admit this is the case) and watching their self-image plunge in front of a screen as they anxiously await the next post or communication.
A few weeks ago, our 15-year-old son was talking to us about all the horrible things that his friends have coming into their phones on a regular basis. Along with his twin sister and their younger (6) siblings, they are two of three teens in their sophomore class without a phone or social media accounts. Since they were very young, they have heard their mother and I talk about intentional choices we were making for ourselves (e.g., I still don’t have a mobile device) and our family in regard to media/technology. Although many of us (other than the youngest kids) use the internet regularly, our kids don’t have gaming systems, mobile devices, cable, and social media accounts. All of these choices are predicated on doing what we feel is best for our kids’ short and long-term holistic health.
During our discussion, he mentioned particular posts on his friends’ phones so embarrassing and disgusting that he couldn’t bear to tell his mother what they were about. And yet, as he noted, what he was seeing was a regular stream that couldn’t be stopped, unless these kids blocked their friends (which was very unlikely) on their phones and social media accounts. As he was sharing this, it’s as if a light bulb was gaining in brightness. Although he had accepted the decision of no phones/accounts easier than his sister in previous years, it didn’t come without its own challenges and resistance. Yet two years into high school, firmly engaged in athletics, academics, and with a core friend group, on this particular night, it seemed that the light in this dark, confusing place was shining through with the following message: My parents are just trying to protect me from what I am not able to protect myself, and give me a chance to grow up in the healthiest way possible. And deep down, I am really glad they are.