At Tuesday’s meeting Tony Pedriana presented a summary of an important recent book:  The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.  Tony stated that he found the conclusions of this book were concerning enough that he felt compelled to share its message.  He noted that, coincidentally, the topic has just now been taken up by the US Surgeon General, who is advocating warnings about the harmful effects of smartphones. 
 
Tony showed several slides presenting data from the book.  It was interesting to note that the data comes from 2010-15, which means that the confounding effects of the pandemic are not part of what the author, Jonathan Haidt, found.
 
Incidences of depression and other unhealthy mental states and behaviors have risen dramatically in young people, coinciding with the combination of smartphone use by adolescents and the increasing influences of social media.  Preteen and teenage girls saw the largest increase in mental health problems, and younger boys were affected as well.  For girls, social media use rose dramatically, whereas for boys there was more use of video games and exposure to pornography.  Smartphone use has meant that younger kids are being exposed to sexually explicit material that is in many cases beyond their ability to understand and cope with.
Self-harm acceleration is a more dramatic trend revealed by Haidt’s analysis; suicide rates are higher for boys due to the method used (firearms).  For girls, more self-harm occurs, but is less likely to be fatal.
 
The book identifies two factors that have combined to cause these alarming facts:  the rise of “safetyism” and the rapid dominance of smartphones and social media.  The shift towards overprotection by parents began in the 1980’s, resulting in a major decline in unsupervised play by children.  The term “helicopter parenting” arose to describe the close monitoring of every aspect of children’s lives. 
 
Smart phones:  Generation Z, born 1997-2012, is the first gen with access to smartphones and social media during adolescence, a period of time crucial for brain development.  The smartphone has altered adolescence in alarming ways:  primarily, social media is not a substitute for real-world interaction.  In addition, the algorithms of social media are designed to addict young people, keeping them scrolling as much as possible.  There has been research documenting that the brain chemistry effects are similar to other addictions.  In a comment, Alison noted that demise of the landline in the house as well as the overload many parents deal with their own daily lives are compounding factors.
 
Haidt noted in the book that the rate of trying semi-adult activities has declined significantly.  Daily time with friends has declined significantly.  Teenagers are generally more emotionally frail and fearful.  Depression rates are significantly higher, and today’s young people are less likely to take risks.  Tony showed a graph documenting a significant decline in the activities common to teenagers as the “try out” adult behaviors.
What can be done?  Tony summarized the author’s recommendations (to which your Tidings editor would add “read the book”.
  1. No smartphone before high school.
  2. No social media before 16
  3. No phones in schools.
  4. More unsupervised play and childhood independence