Save our children: Shut off the smartphones!

As parents of four young children 10 and under, we often reminisce how different our childhoods were just 30 short years ago. In many ways our kids are much safer now. A few decades ago, we didn’t wear seat belts. We were allowed to play unchaperoned at the park or in the neighboring fields for hours on end. We rode our bikes without helmets. Heck, lead paint was just phasing out when we were kids. But perhaps the most obvious difference are smartphones. These devices have made our lives easier in many ways, and connected us with our friends and loved ones like never before. But according to emerging new research, one of the largest potential threats to our kids’ safety and well-being are — you guessed it —smartphones.

In a recent column for The Atlantic, San Diego State University psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge introduced us to some of her new findings about social media and smartphone use by the post-Millennial generation, which she refers to as “iGen”: A generation that entered adolescence at “exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent…. (M)embers of this generation are growing up with smartphones, …. have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time without the internet.”

The sudden uptick in “screen time,” or use of smartphones, by today’s children and teenagers has dramatically altered their lives in alarming ways — a behavioral earthquake affecting an entire generation in ways perhaps never before seen.

As parents, this caught our attention.

Obsessive use of social media and messaging is the new normal for our kids. Rather than getting a driver’s license at 16 and testing mom and dad’s curfew on weekends in pursuit of independence, the iGen’s lives are being lived out through social media and smartphones from the comfort (and solitude) of their bedrooms. So it’s no wonder that round-the-clock smartphone/social media use is now being associated with a litany of mental health problems. Unhappiness, depression and suicide rates among our children and teens are all sharply on the rise — and Dr. Twenge reports direct correlations between the amount of screen time and unhappiness and loneliness.

Moreover, kids are literally sleeping with these devices. The last thing they see before drifting off, the first thing they see when they wake up — even waking in the night to review and respond to messages and posts. The whole tone of their day is being set before they get out of bed! An Instagram post with too few “likes;” a text message that goes unanswered immediately; a Snap that makes them feel excluded — any one of these things can wreck a kid’s day, without any face-to-face social contact whatsoever. And it’s happening in real time.

The good news for us as parents is that this clear and present danger to our kids is preventable. There’s still time. And at the risk of oversimplifying the issue, the relationship between unhappiness and screen time appears to be linear, according to Dr. Twenge. In other words, the opposite is also true — less screen time goes hand in hand with happier (and healthier) kids.

How do we rein in this behavioral freight train? Maybe it means only allowing your child an hour of social media per night. Maybe it’s requiring them to store/charge devices in a central (i.e., non-bedroom) location so as to protect sleeping habits (even if we parents still do it!). Perhaps it means instituting “Screen Free Sundays” as some have done. Whatever the approach, the message from us as parents ought to be clear — we love our kids too much to let them deliberately harm themselves, and we’re going to do something about it.

We realize this means more work for us as parents. But the data is telling us that we must get serious about limiting smartphone use by our kids. Family game nights, bike rides and walks, camping and fishing, art and music, and of course, youth sports are all great and healthy alternatives. More physical activity and more real human connections means happier and healthier kids.

John and Linde Marshall are the parents of four active kids and operate a small farm in north Grand Junction. They can be reached on their smartphones: @LindeMarshall and @MesaVeep.


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