Screens and Teens: How Phones Wrecked Kids’ Brains

MThe sister, who works at a specialist university, was telling me recently that phones are the number one problem she and her colleagues are struggling with. Students have them outside at all times, clutched in their hands like shiny black security blankets. Your class will be messaging each other from across the room during lessons, or scrolling through social media or listening to music; Meanwhile, he desperately tries to win back their attention and get them to engage with the real world.

Screens and teenagers: It’s a combination that has become increasingly difficult to navigate over the past decade. The shift from what I think of as analogue phones with buttons but no internet to smartphones, compounded by an increase in digital life during pandemic lockdowns, has seen 46% of teenagers report being online almost constantly. Around 97 per cent of children have a smartphone by the age of 12, according to data from Ofcom.

In February, new battle lines were drawn in this ongoing war. Government ministers confirmed their plans to ban them from schools in England, with the Department for Education (DfE) issuing guidance to help teachers implement them. Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, said the DfE believed the guidance would enable headteachers to exorcise these digital demons and send a clear message about consistency.

You go to school, you go to learn, you go to create these friendships, you go to talk to people and socialize and you go to educate yourself, he told BBC Radio 4s. Today program You’re not going to sit on your cell phone or text when you could actually be talking to someone.

About 97% of children have a smartphone by the age of 12


The reason this is so urgent is not simply that tweens and teenagers are not paying adequate attention in class. It has a far more sinister impact on the mental health of children and young people, according to a new book, The Anxious Generation, written by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He makes the compelling case that the rise in time spent online has coincided with an alarming mental health crisis around the world.

Between 2010 and 2015, suicide rates among girls and boys aged 10 to 14 increased by 167 and 92%, respectively. Rates of self-harm among teenage girls in the UK increased by 78%. Anxiety diagnoses for 18- to 25-year-olds increased by 92%. During that same five-year period, smartphones reached the majority of American homes and were adopted faster than any other communication technology in human history. There’s also a tangible link between screen time and poor mental health, Haidt reveals: Nearly 40 percent of teenage girls who spend more than five hours a day on social media have been diagnosed with clinical depression.

Childhood and adolescence have been reconnected, says Haidt. Referring to the shift that began at the turn of the millennium, when technology companies began to create a suite of world-changing products based on exploiting the capabilities of the rapidly expanding Internet, Haidt paints a profoundly worrying

The companies had done little or no research on the mental health effects of their products on children and adolescents, and did not share data with researchers who study health effects. When faced with mounting evidence that their products harmed young people, they mostly engaged in denial, obfuscation and PR campaigns, he says.

Business models that relied on maximizing engagement through psychological tricks were the worst offenders, he says, adding that they hooked children during vulnerable stages of development, while their brains were rapidly rewiring in response to stimulation. entering For girls, some of the biggest damage was inflicted by social media; for children, video games and porn sites had the most chilling impacts.

By designing a firehouse of addictive content that entered through children’s eyes and ears, and by displacing physical play and in-person socialization, these companies have reshaped childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale, Haidt writes damningly. The companies are accused of behaving like the tobacco and vaping industries, designing highly addictive products and circumventing laws to sell them to minors.

These companies have reshaped childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale

It makes terrifying reading. Developmentally, children’s brains are not at all adapted to deal with all of the above. The reward-seeking parts of the brain mature earlier, but the frontal cortex, responsible for self-control and willpower, doesn’t fire on all cylinders until our twenties, creating a dangerously toxic cocktail when you throw in sufficiently advanced algorithms like to equalize hold adults’ attention hostage for hours at a time.

Haidt tells the story of a mother in Boston, representative of many of the parents she worked with, who said she felt she had lost her 14-year-old daughter, Emily. She explained how she and her husband had tried to reduce the amount of time Emily spent on Instagram. In one harrowing episode, he hacked into his mother’s phone, disabled the monitoring software and threatened to kill himself if his parents reinstalled it.

Lest you think that the sudden deterioration of young people’s mental health is due to current events, for example, political crises, the rise of right-wing and populist movements, Brexit, Donald Trump and all the rest Haidt compared several countries culturally similar enough, but experienced different major news events during the same time period, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Nordic countries. They all experienced an almost identical change in the early 2010s.

There are four fundamental harms caused by the new phone-based childhood, according to Haidt: social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation and addiction. The first is obvious. Children need a lot of time to play with each other, face-to-face, to foster social development, Haidt says. According to research, teenagers who spend more time in person with their peers have better mental health, while those who spend more time on social media are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. But the percentage of 17- to 18-year-olds in the U.S. who said they hang out with their friends almost every day declined dramatically starting in 2009. Time spent interacting with people online has replaced the equivalent of ‘IRL and the mental health of teenagers has taken a corresponding drop.

Rates of depression and anxiety in teenagers have increased since 2010


The second is less clear, but the rise in sleep problems that had plateaued in the early 2010s but continued on a strong upward trajectory in 2013 has been linked to phone-based childhoods. According to a review of 36 correlational studies, there are significant associations between high social media use and poor sleep. A dataset from the United Kingdom found that heavy screen media use was associated with shorter sleep duration, longer sleep latency, and more mid-sleep awakenings. Teenagers need more sleep than adults, especially during puberty; those who don’t sleep don’t concentrate or retain information as well as those who have had eight hours a night.

Adults will be very familiar with number three: attention fragmentation. Double-digit tabs and the constant pinging of Slack and countless WhatsApp groups are hard enough to juggle as a senior. One study found that the average teen receives 192 alerts or notifications a day from social media and communication apps, the equivalent of 11 per waking hour, or one every five minutes. As hard as it is for an adult to stay committed to a mental path, it’s much harder for a teenager, who has an immature frontal cortex and thus a limited ability to say no to exit ramps. Haidt writes. He argues that the endless stream of interruptions affects young people’s ability to think and can leave permanent imprints on their rapidly reconfiguring brains.

And finally, addiction. This stems from app creators designing products that deliver variable rewards, triggering feel-good dopamine hits. They use every trick in the psychologists toolkit to hook users as deeply as slot machines hook players. Teenagers are much more susceptible to these tricks than adults, due to the aforementioned frontal cortex, which doesn’t mature until the 20s and beyond.

With all this in place, is it any wonder that Gen Z and those who came after are in crisis? And is there any way to break this damaging pattern? Yes, according to Haidt, but it will take strong, collective action to delay the age when children get smartphones and social media accounts, making the shift from a phone-based childhood to a game-based one.

As hard as it is for an adult to stay committed to a mental path, it’s much harder for a teenager.

Voluntary coordination can be a useful tool here, for example, a group of parents in a school can collectively decide that none of their children will be allowed to use phones until a certain age. This group decision means that children don’t feel excluded in the same way if you can reach a critical mass, not even having a phone becomes the norm. Haidt also highlights technological solutions, such as introducing better basic phones to avoid giving smartphones to children; lock bags for phones; and quick and easy age verification methods. Finally, governments must intervene. Laws such as requiring all social media companies to verify the age of new users and policies requiring schools to enforce a phone-in-locker rule during the school day could have a big impact.

The important thing to note is that it’s not too late to make a change, Haidt says: When new consumer products are found to be dangerous, especially to children, we recall them and keep them off the market until the manufacturer corrects the design In 2010, teenagers, parents, schools, and even tech companies didn’t know that smartphones and social media had so many harmful effects. Now we do.

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness by Jonathan Haidt is published on March 26 by Allen Lane for 25

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