A Call to Parents: The Screen Effect
by Jennifer Ruisch, screenwriter & ScreenStrong Ambassador
The great experiment is underway. An entire generation of kids and teens are now using screens in their free time to watch funny videos, play games and connect with friends. And now, thanks to Covid-19, they’re also being educated entirely via screen as well.
The choice to move school to a digital environment was beyond our control, and educators did an incredible job tackling a tough situation. We do, however, have control about the state of our education going forward, and, if we have any sense at all, we will acknowledge that the one thing it cannot involve is more digital “learning.”
Your Child on Screens
It takes 25 years for the frontal cortex of the human brain to develop. This is the executive function area of the brain that is responsible for decision making and impulse control. (Which explains why teenagers are prone to making questionable decisions and doing dangerous things without thinking). After just 30 minutes on a screen, the blood flow in a child’s growing brain shifts away from the frontal lobe. With too much screen use, the frontal lobe stops developing properly.
Researchers clearly see on brain scans that whenever there is more screen use during childhood, there is atrophy of the child’s brain. In other words, children who are exposed to more interactive screen time have physically smaller brains.
Before I go any further, I must clarify what I mean when I talk about “interactive screen time.” Not all screen time is created equal. The screen time that is most problematic for a growing brain is not passive screen time, but rather active or interactive screen time. This means sitting down to watch a movie or a football game on TV is not bad for your child’s brain the same way scrolling through Instagram or watching YouTube videos for hours on end is.
Of course you still make a trade-off as a parent when your child watches too much TV (instead of reading or playing outdoors), but, by and large, passive screen time is a neutral activity for the brain while interactive screen time is decidedly not neutral. So sitting your toddler in front of Sesame Street will not harm him the same way letting him play on your smartphone while you grocery shop will. Interactive screen time is what we will be talking about in this article, as it is the primary cause of hyperarousal and countless physical and psychological changes in children.
When researchers first began looking at brain scans of kids who regularly used screens, they expected to see a pattern similar to what they find in brains of gamblers, given the way screens continually alter dopamine levels. Instead what they found was a pattern akin to someone with a drug or alcohol addiction. Interactive screens like tablets, smartphones and video games perfectly mirror the effect that physical drugs would have on a child’s brain. This is why Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA calls screens “electronic cocaine.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics says 8- to 10- year-olds now spend 8 hours a day on screens while teenagers spend at least 11 hours. The federal government, through the National Institutes of Health, recently launched a study of brain development to understand how all that screen time and its subsequent dopamine fluctuations might impact the physical structure of a growing brain, as well as a child’s mental and emotional well-being.
The topic of what screens may be doing to our children is of such concern to public health that $300 million is now being spent to track more than 11,000 kids for a decade. This study has already yielded numerous MRIs from its test subjects. Dr. Gaya Dowling of the National Institutes of Health says the MRIs they’ve gathered thus far show precisely what we already knew: the frontal cortex is thinner in kids who spend more time on screens.
Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, founder of Maui Recovery and author of Glow Kids, has done clinical work with thousands of addicted teens over the past 15 years. He says, “I have found it easier to treat heroin and crystal meth addicts than lost-in-the-matrix video gamers or Facebook-dependent social media addicts.”
LA Psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley coined the term “Electronic Screen Syndrome” to explain the overstimulation of a child’s nervous system she sees in her clinical practice. Dunckley says screen time has a grave effect on behavior, mood and focus. One study found that kids who spend a lot of time on screens were twice as likely to suffer from attention disorders.
“Screens overstimulate the brain, causing a dysregulation of the nervous system,” Dunckley says. She uses “electronic screen fasts” for her patients who’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, sensory integration issues, autism and depression; and in all cases, she sees vast improvements in children once screens are removed from their environment. Dunckley explains that without screens, the child’s brain is finally able to get the deep rest it needs. The body clock resynchronizes and brain chemistry and hormones can rebalance.
“All interactive screen time stresses the central nervous system,” Dunckley says. This is why kids throw a fit when it’s time to put away the tablet, smartphone, or laptop. Their bodies are already in “flight or fight” mode. We know there is a link between screens and hyperactivity because research shows when mice are exposed to screens, they become hyperactive and lose their desire to learn new things.
The brain is not the only part of a child’s body being harmed by so much screen use. My own children’s eye doctor says she regularly sees teenagers with the same eye disorders and diseases as her 70- and 80-year-old patients (such as glaucoma). This is the direct result of accumulated hours spent staring at the blue light of a screen.
When a child looks down at a smartphone or tablet, the stress on her cervical spine increases as well. In an adult, it’s believed to increase from 10 lbs to 50 lbs. “Text neck” is the term now being used to describe this repeated stress injury to a person’s neck and spine. This sort of poor posture can lead to reduced lung capacity by as much as 30% and is also linked to further neurological issues, heart disease and depression. Kenneth Hansrag, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine, calls this stress injury from hand-held screen use an epidemic, and says, “The problem is really profound in young people.”
A survey of 390,089 people in the UK found that higher levels of screen time were associated with a higher risk of “all-cause mortality” as well as a higher risk of both heart and disease and cancer. This is of course to say nothing of the correlation between screen time and childhood obesity, which has already been well documented.
Lastly, the potential harm for microwave radiation given off by phones is also evident. A review in the Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastruture showed that children face a much higher risk of exposure to this radiation. One study found the brain tissue of children absorbs two times more radiation from cell phones than adults. Other studies have reported the bone marrow of children absorbs ten times more radiation. Fetuses are particularly vulnerable to cell phones because exposure can lead to degeneration of the protective sheath surrounding their brain neurons. These findings spurred Belgium, France and India to pass new laws and issue warnings about children using wireless devices.
Over 200 peer-reviewed studies point to screen time correlating to increased ADHD, depression, increased aggression, screen addiction, anxiety and psychosis. We set our children up for failure in countless ways by aiding and abetting the tech companies in turning our kids into their life-long consumers. A child’s frontal lobe development largely determines success in every area of his or her life going forward, including academics, relationship satisfaction and emotional health. Smartphones were designed to be used by adults with fully developed brains. Just because we currently see widespread use of them among children and teens does not mean it’s okay.
The Joke of Online Learning
Watching our children try to navigate an all-digital learning environment for the past few months has been interesting to say the least. Children falling off lofts during Zoom meetings, secret chat boxes open with a continuous flow of emojis during classes and more pet-theme “show and tells” than you can count. Put simply: The amount of “learning” that’s taken place since Covid-19 began is minimal when compared to a real school environment.
Teachers have been magnificent. Though many of them have expressed a sadness about not being able to teach in person, we’ve all witnessed some of the kindest, most patient and creative displays from them toward their students in the last many weeks. Their instruction has been exceptional; it’s the vehicle through which they must now instruct that’s been the problem.
I woke up this morning to a teacher asking students on a Zoom call to please sit up and focus (most of them were lying in bed). My middle child took a virtual field trip for class yesterday. It’s the same field trip my eldest child took in real life two years ago. After the virtual field trip was over, my older child spent 15 minutes describing to her younger sibling in vivid detail everything she missed and wasn’t able to see because she had to take the field trip “virtually.” An experience on screen is so inferior to real life, it needs no reiterating.
The school years are essential to a child’s socialization process. Students must learn to deal with peers and authority figures using empathy and respect. Students in online classes report having trouble focusing because they’re too busy texting, emailing, checking in with social networks, watching videos, playing games and listening to music while in “school.”
A Brookings Institution study found students taking online courses “perform substantially worse than students in traditional in-person courses.” Children need eye contact and face-to face interaction. They need to be in a 3-D learning environment that encourages physical movement, creativity and collaboration.
Many children already struggle academically in school. Taking an online class without a teacher present requires these same kids to suddenly morph into self-motivated, organized over-achievers. A New York Times editorial lamented that the online learning revolution was “distressing” as it especially threatens to shortchange our most vulnerable students and widen the socio-economic divide.
Patricia Greenfield, professor of psychology at UCLA, analyzed more than 50 studies on learning and pointed out that reading for pleasure among young people has decreased as screen use has increased. She says this is problematic because we have an abundance of research showing how reading develops imagination, reflection and critical thinking as well as vocabulary in countless ways visual media does not.
Reading on a screen has actually been shown to hinder literacy development and comprehension and impair deep reading ability. This means a program like Epic is actually doing kids more harm than good. Even a Kindle is processed differently by the brain—as much as it tries to imitate a print book.
When brain scans of people reading real books have been compared to brain scans of people reading on screens, the results are always the same: There is a concentration of white matter in the center of the brain in those reading real books. For those on screens, that same white matter is scattered. This is troubling because white matter composes the neural connections of the brain. The more concentrated white matter is, the faster our thoughts can travel. So brains with concentrated white matter are able to do more work faster. When white matter is diffused, the brain operates at a lower capacity. Findings like these are important not only with regard to e-learning among children, but for all companies seeking to move more of their employee work and meetings online.
Jane Healy, author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds, spent years researching computer use in schools. She expected to find computers in the classroom would be quite beneficial, but what she says now is, “Time on the computer might interfere with development of everything from the young child’s motor skills to his or her ability to think logically and distinguish between reality and fantasy.”
Research has also shown that handwriting is far superior for notetaking than typing on a laptop. When a student writes out notes by hand, his recall, integration and exam scores improve. This is why several countries, (e.g. Finland), have chosen to skip technology in schools all together. Instead they provide students four outdoor play breaks a day. Meanwhile many misled Americans still view child “play” as the sedentary activity of sitting in front of a glowing screen.
Data from a National Institutes of Health study showed kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens got lower scores on thinking and language tests. This begs the question: Why are we even using screens in schools at all?
There is a reason that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley elites send their children to schoolsthat do not use screens. The infamous Waldorf School of the Peninsula (near Google’s Mountain View campus) believes exposing children to technology before 7th grade can hamper their development.
The CEO of Snapchat has said he limits his kid’s screen time to an hour and a half per week. Both Apple’s CEO and Microsoft’s CEO have spoken out against tech overuse among children. Of course Steve Jobs famously said, “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page sent their kids to no-tech Montessori Schools, as did Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.
Many tech executives also include a stipulation in their nanny contracts requiring caretakers to make sure their children stay completely off tablets and smartphones, (some going so far as to forbid them to ever glance at their own smartphone in front of the kids).
Silicon Valley schools use a lot of chalkboards and No. 2 pencils. Instead of learning to code, kids are taught creative expression and collaboration, in part because their parents know this is what will allow them to rise above the masses of children currently being raised on screens.
So why do some of the brightest minds in our country say “no” to technology while the rest of America’s public schools continue touting their 1 to 1 iPad or Chromebook ratios? Because the educational technology industry has misinformed them for years in order to profit off of public schools.
Educational technology is a $60 billion industry. The industry really took off after Common Core was adopted because software no longer needed to be customized to each individual state. Any digital learning tool could suddenly be sold to all public schools throughout the U.S.
Rupert Murdoch invested over $1 billion in an ed-tech company with the stated mission of selling every student in America a tablet and software with annual licensing fees. He says he believes education technology is a $500 billion market that’s largely untapped. Steve Jobs called textbooks an “8 billion market ripe for digital destruction.” Video game developers are now busy building “educational” games as more and more tech promoters try to convince parents and teachers that American children no longer have the attention span to learn the old-fashioned way and now need more “intellectually stimulating” methods—i.e. screens.
What happened following the explosion of ed-tech in public schools? ADHD rates shot up by 50%, for one. Psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley says, “[The] infusion of technology into public education has created an ongoing ‘need’ for more equipment and more products, making schools themselves dependent on the tech industry.” Cambridge scholar John Vallance echoes her concern, “I think when people come to write the history of this period in education…this investment in classroom technology is going to be seen as a huge fraud.”
Glow Kids author Dr. Nicholas Kardaras says, “In almost every classroom in America today, you will find some type of screen—smartboards, Chromebooks, tablets, smartphones…we have accepted tech in the classroom as a necessary and beneficial evolution in education. This is a lie. Tech in the classroom not only leads to worse educational outcomes for kids…it can also clinically hurt them.”
One 2011 study found that students actually prefer “ordinary, real-life lessons” to using technology in the classroom. It actually surprised researchers that kids would rather have human interaction with someone leading them at the front of the classroom over the autonomy of an all-digital lesson.
Perhaps Matt Miles and Joe Clement, co-authors of Screen Schooled: How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber, put it best: “Students spend as much as 5 to 7 hours tied to their computer, earbuds in, disconnected from others. Teacher instruction has been replaced with a blend of videos, voice-actors reading from textbooks and educational games….when students don’t understand a concept, much of the software sends them back to the videos they already watched. This profoundly misunderstands education. When a student fails to grasp a concept and asks for clarification, human teachers don’t simply repeat what they just said moments earlier in the exact same wording and matter. They simplify the wording, use real life examples, engage with the student by asking questions about what they think and try countless other ways to adjust their instruction.”
A New Generation of Video Games
The copious findings on how screens harm a child’s brain did not come as a surprise to one particular group of researchers: the men and women who’ve already spent decades studying the physical and psychological changes that occur in video gamers.
Many parents tout studies about how video games have been shown to improve cognition and problem-solving skills while encouraging pro-social behavior in kids. These studies have been promoted widely by video game companies in an effort to shed a positive light on their products and produce higher consumer demand. Yet multiple studies of video game addicts show considerable shrinkage in the gray matter of their brains as well as volume loss in the striatum—the part of the brain responsible for suppressing socially unacceptable impulses. Of greatest concern is the damage done to an area of the brain known as the insula which involves the capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others.
When your child plays a video game, his heart rate and blood pressure increase. Meanwhile, his dopamine and cortisol levels rise. Studies suggest those who regularly play games can be at increased risk for developing neurological and psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia.
Games popular with elementary school children, like Fortnite, may seem harmless, but the truth is—they are an initiation. The goal of the gaming industry is to turn your child into a life-long consumer. This is why gaming companies actually employ people who’ve studied persuasive design to help them make their games more addictive and habit-forming.
In his paper “Behavioral Game Design,” video game psychologist John Hopson explains how psychology is used extensively to keep a player staring at a screen for as long as possible. In other words, there is nothing wrong with your child when he throws a fit about not wanting to get off Fortnite. His brain has been hijacked, and he is a victim of the massive gaming industry, which is set to surpass $200 billion by 2023. Companies with this kind of money can afford to hire psychologists who know how to embed triggers into games and create hooks like endowed progress, loss aversion and reciprocity that will turn even the brightest kid into a gaming zombie.
Pediatrician Meg Meeker says, “In America, we have so distorted what we expect from teens that we have come to see isolation as a normal part of teen development. It isn’t. It is a red flag for depression—and any parent with a son who spends hours upon hours alone in his room, be warned. This is not healthy or normal behavior, so don’t let friends convince you that it is.”
Countless stories have been told from parents of video gamers about what happens when they finally try to take the games away. They tell of fists through walls, controllers through screens, and having to call the police for help. One 16-year-old boy shot both his parents (killing his mother) after they tried to get rid of his Halo III video game. The boy’s attorney later argued he had been playing the game so long, he could no longer comprehend that death was real and permanent.
Melanie Hempe, founder of ScreenStrong, watched her own son drop out of college after becoming addicted to World of Warcraft. A study from Pew Internet Research found that 70% of college students play video games and almost half of those who play admit the game keeps them from studying. Federal Communications Commissioner Deborah Tate says, “one of the top reasons for college drop-outs in the U.S. is online gaming addiction.”
Tracy Markle, MA, LPC, owner and clinical director of Collegiate Coaching Services, says gaming overuse is part of every conversation in all colleges and is identified as a “primary factor in student academics, mental health and social problems on campus.” She says tech overuse is linked to student isolation, depression, low grades, lack of self-care, poor diet, sleep problems and substance abuse.
While a game such as Fortnite may not be terribly violent, young gamers eventually graduate to more mature games (preferred by the aforementioned college kids). Last year I got my first glimpse of the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The module I saw is one where the player (a first-person shooter) enters a crowded airport with the sole purpose of mowing down hundreds of innocent civilians as they wait in line to board their planes. As each terrified bystander runs from you trying desperately to get away, you (the mass murderer) are supposed to rack up as many points as you can through kill shots to their heads and upper torsos.
The Grand Theft Auto franchise has sold 225 million units. This means millions of teens (and their young siblings who play alongside them) spend hours a day on a video game where you can do things like…shoot a police officer at point blank range in the head…hijack a helicopter and fly it into a skyscraper…walk into a strip club, hire a prostitute, get oral sex from her then murder her and take your money back. When Grand Theft Auto V was released, it made $815 million in the first 24 hours of sales. This iteration of the game added a prolonged “interactive torture” feature that requires players to pull out a victim’s teeth with pliers.
Perhaps we should stop looking around at our current culture and the disregard for human life that abounds with such disbelief. Is any of it really that shocking when generations of children have grown up playing games like Grand Theft Auto?
Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a West Point psychology professor and author of Assassination Generation says, “From a military and law enforcement perspective, violent videogames are murder simulators that train kids to kill.” In a study compiled by Dr. Jim McGee, an FBI consultant who studied 19 juvenile school killers, he found the one thing all the killers had in common was complete immersion in violent video games and movies. It was the same with juvenile mass murderers in Europe.
The Columbine killers played Doom, a video game licensed by the U.S. military to train soldiers to kill. The Sandy Hook killer logged 83,496 kills in the game Combat Arms (including 22,725 headshots).
Michael Carneal, a 14-year-old killer in West Padukah, Kentucky, had never fired a gun in real life, yet he stole a .22 pistol and fired eight shots into a high school prayer group, hitting five people in the head and three in the upper torso. Three of the victim’s parents later sued the makers of the violent video games Carneal regularly played, including Doom, Quake and Mortal Combat.
The American Psychological Association, The American Academy of Pediatrics and a host of other well-known groups signed a joint statement recently that said, “Well over 1,000 studies point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Violent video games teach children to associate pleasure and success with their ability to cause pain and suffering to others.” Perhaps Lt. Grossman says it best, “Kids watching horror movies and playing brutal games have been taught to associate the death and suffering they see with their popcorn, candy bars, sodas…We have millions of children who have been classically conditioned from their youngest days to take pleasure from human death and suffering.”
The advertising slogan for the video game Carmageddon: “As easy as killing babies with axes.” The tagline for another game called Subspace: “Meet people from all over the world…then kill them.”
It goes without saying that just because a kid is obsessed with Fortnite does not mean he (or she) will become addicted to video games or end up engaging in real life violence. However, parents must not bury their heads in the sand any longer when it comes to today’s video game culture. Not everything looks like Minecraft. And yes, even Minecraft has been proven to be terribly addictive for kids. The goal of the gaming industry is for your child to log countless hours of their precious, young years—years they can never get back—engaged in more interactive screen time.
Mental Health and Social Media
Awhile back I had a meeting at NBC about their recent collaboration with Snapchat. Snapchat has 220 million users, and the network producer I met with spoke excitedly about how the platform has a captive audience with 92% of American teenagers ages 12-17 on it.
He showed me cuts from popular “shows” teens view on Snapchat. The cuts were so fast and jumpy, I had a literal headache for hours after watching them. When I asked the producer how millions of teens could watch something so disorienting, he said, “This is the only way they will watch anything.”
He went on to explain that the attention span of an average teenager has fallen in the internet era from 10 seconds to 5 seconds and is soon expected to be around 3 seconds. This means that something different, new or exciting must now happen on screen every few seconds in order to hold the average teen’s attention.
I say all of this to make the point that social media giants like Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok (along with streaming services and network TV stations) are not only changing our kids’ brains at fundamental levels, they know they’re changing them, and they’re okay with it. Why? Because they have algorithms that continuously show them how to monetarily capitalize on whatever changes are occurring.
Few people need to see the research on social media to understand the profound negative effect it’s had on younger generations. The proof is staring us in the face. We all know teens who are unable to look an adult in the eye when they speak to them. We know boys who can’t approach girls except on a screen; and we know girls whose body image issues only began after they got on Instagram. We’ve heard countless stories of cyberbullying and seen skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among young people.
But just in case you are the kind of person who does want to know the research, I’ll give it to you in a nutshell: The Journal of the American Medical Association followed 3800 adolescents for four years. They measured the time teens spent on social media along with their depression symptoms. As one might expect, they found that higher amounts of social media use were associated with higher levels of depression.
“Facebook depression” is a term introduced by the American Academy of Pediatrics to describe the impact social media is having on youth mental health. An 8th grader’s risk of depression jumps 27% if they use social media. A study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that teens who use less social media are less depressed and less lonely.
Clinical psychologist Aaron Fobian says, “Spending time with people face to face is a big protective factor against depression. We sometimes assume that communicating electronically is as good, but it’s not.” According to the Pew Research Center only 25% of today’s teens say they spend time in-person with friends outside of school. That’s because most of the time they spend with friends now is online.
The American Psychological Association found a sharp increase in the number of adolescents reporting negative psychological symptoms in those born in 1995 or later (iGen). They found a substantial increase in major depression, psychological distress and suicidal thoughts, with the greatest spike occurring in 2011, (the year social media exploded). No corresponding increase was observed in older adults. Jean Twenge, author of iGen and professor of psychology at San Diego State University says, “Cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations…”
Unfortunately, even judicious parents who intuitively know a child should not be active on social media too young can easily fall prey to campaigns such as “Wait until 8th.” This well-meaning (albeit misinformed) group encourages parents to hold off on giving a child a smartphone until 8th grade. While this may sound like sage advice at first, (and it’s certainly better than putting a phone in the hand of an elementary-age student), the truth is that 8th grade is one of the worst times in a teen’s development to hand him or her a smartphone. This is especially true for girls who do not need to be suddenly bombarded with an onslaught of the “female ideal” right as they are feeling most insecure about their own changing bodies.
New research led by Jennifer Mills, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at York University in Toronto, examined the effects of social media on the body image of young women. The study’s findings showed that social media engagement with attractive peers increased negative state body image. “The results showed that these young adult women felt more dissatisfied with their bodies,” Mills said. “They felt worse about their own appearance after looking at social media pages of someone that they perceived to be more attractive than them.” Mills believes we must educate more people on how social media may be inherently linked to the stringent dieting, eating disorders and excessive exercise we see in young women.
Even older (and supposedly wiser) women regularly fall prey to so-called “influencers” incessantly promoting the latest detox tea or weight loss shake. So it should come as no shock that our children do too. Anyone who spends five minutes on Instagram quickly sees a recurring theme is obsessing over creating the “perfect meal” or snack.
Social media’s emphasis on healthy food has even led to a new eating disorder classification: Orthorexia Nervosa. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is an obsession with health, wellness and clean eating. It usually starts with the positive desire to get healthy and eventually leads to a person cutting out all “bad” food (sugar, gluten, dairy, caffeine, etc.) until finally what the person “allows” herself to eat is so limited, her health becomes adversely affected.
Researchers believe orthorexia is the result of western cultural influences that involve a fixation on healthy living—a fixation fueled almost entirely by social media. People who display the most orthorexia symptoms are people who use Instagram frequently. Orthorexics love to research the best (or “right”) foods; they refuse to eat a broad range of foods (often based on how a food “makes them feel”); they are critical of other people’s food choices (“I would never let my kids eat that.”); and they go to excessive lengths to attain increased wellness, with their mood fluctuating daily depending on how their “healthy lifestyle” is going.
When it comes to body image, young girls are not only fed a slew of unrealistic images online, many are also regularly cyberbullied about their appearance. More than 59% of U.S. teenagers say they’ve been harassed or cyberbullied online. Around 37% of them develop social anxiety as a result. The top social media platforms where cyberbullying takes place are Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube. And of course we all know how adults like to cyberbully other adults on Twitter.
When a child is cyberbullied, it increases the chance that he or she will self-harm, and it increases suicidal thoughts by 15%. While suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in adults, it is the 2nd leading cause of death in young people. Suicide rates among teens 15-19 rose 47% from 2000 to 2017. Not coincidentally, this corresponds directly with the rise of social media.
The information kids can access online may also influence any suicidal ideations they’re having in a more straightforward manner. On a 2008 Japanese message board, someone shared that a person can kill him/herself with hydrogen sulfide gas. Shortly thereafter, 220 people attempted suicide this way. There are also many pro-suicide sites and chat rooms children can access with a simple search on Google.
Even those kids who might not seek out pro-suicide forums will (if exposed to enough screen time) inevitably end up stumbling across popular music videos that glorify suicide—videos like “Bury a Friend” by six-time Grammy Award-Winning artist Billie Eilish. The deeply disturbing video (with lyrics that include the refrain “I wanna end me”) has almost 350 million views on YouTube—most of which come from her young fanbase.
Billie Eilish rose to fame because of social media (after she uploaded her song “Ocean Eyes” to SoundCloud). Eilish was the first person born in the 2000s to produce a #1 album, and she now has 36.6 million Instagram followers and 19 million YouTube subscribers. So, in many ways she speaks for an entire generation when she talks about her extreme depression and suicidal tendencies. She’s been called a “symptom of the growing romanticism of serious mental illnesses among teens—teens who now profit off other teens who feel similarly.” Journalist Andrew Matson coined it: “the trendification of suicide.”
Most of Eilish’s videos are the stuff of nightmares—with dripping blood, decapitated heads, spiders crawling out of her mouth, needles forced into flesh, etc. In her video “Bellyache” (which has almost 400 million views) Eilish plays a psychopath who murders a friend, stuffs her in the back of her car, later feels remorse and takes her own life. These are the storylines being consumed by children and teens who naively click on music that’s trending.
Lastly, a discussion about social media would not be complete without mentioning TikTok. The quirky video site seems relatively harmless at first glance, but TikTok has been one of the most heavily criticized social media sites of all time when it comes to child safety and privacy. TikTok is owned by a Chinese company that has relied on users’ ignorance regarding its practices to rise to prominence.
In 2019, TikTok (which has half a billion users) was slapped with a $5.7 million fine from the FTC to settle allegations that it illegally collected personal information from children under the age of 13. A British charity released a warning report to parents that predators were using TikTok to target users as young as 8.
An L.A. man was arrested for committing lewd acts on children and was accused of using TikTok to initiate sexual encounters with 21 girls, some as young as 9. India’s High Court ordered Google and Apple to pull TikTok from their app stores over concerns that it was exposing children to sexual predators and pornography.
The Problem of Porn
Internet porn use is linked to increased sexual activity at a younger age as well as risky sexual behaviors such as multiple partners, group sex and using substances during sex. A large body of research also demonstrates an association between porn consumption and delinquent behavior including theft, arson, forced sex acts, etc. A 2019 study conducted by The Shift Project in Paris found that porn videos now account for 27% of all online video traffic in the world.
The idea of “trusting one’s teen” to not view explicit, age-inappropriate material is laughable. All teens are naturally curious, and when they’re encouraged by friends to look at websites they shouldn’t, most succumb to peer pressure. This doesn’t mean a child is bad; it simply means his or her frontal lobe isn’t fully developed so risk-taking and poor decision making come with the territory).
Internet filters like Disney’s Circle are nice in theory, but there are countless ways to circumvent them. Teens can even buy software on Amazon that will give them access to all the parental passwords on their home’s filters. And of course, sneaky kids and teens love to share “best practices” for hiding questionable content on their smartphones. For instance, the “calculator app” may look like a calculator (so parents won’t think twice about it), but it’s actually a place to store images a child doesn’t want his parents to find.
According to the Pew Research Center, 35% of girls ages 15-17 say they’ve received unwanted explicit images online. A phone in any child’s hand is a direct line to millions of images and videos most parents would be shocked to know exist.
Unless Google’s Safe Search is turned on, (and sometimes even when it is), a child is likely to stumble upon these explicit images by simply looking up the most benign of things. There are thousands of stories of elementary age kids as young as 4 and 5 researching something very innocent only to be immediately redirected to Porn Hub (a site that gets 42 billion searches annually). I know several parents who’ve personally had this happen to their elementary school children. One of them was using the “best filter” designed for stopping just such a thing.
The net worth of the porn industry is currently estimated at $97 billion. In other countries, porn laws are far more stringent, but in the U.S., anyone can visit a site like Porn Hub by simply clicking a box that claims they’re over 18. This is how we ended up with 64% of American kids ages 13-24 saying they seek out porn on a weekly basis. Research shows porn use among 9- to 17-year-olds correlates with much higher rates of physical and sexual victimization.
Over 60% of porn users describe their sexual tastes as eventually “escalating” to new genres. Studies continually show that people who view online porn inevitably experience a shift in preferences due to desensitization. It takes more and more to keep them interested. Studies show the younger age a kid is exposed to porn, the more likely he or she will become the type of user who eventually seeks out the sexual abuse of animals and children. The average age of first Internet porn exposure is 11.
That’s right. When we talk about porn, we’re not talking about images or videos of two consenting adults having sex. Children can now access videos online that cater to everything from incest to sex with animals to orgies involving excretory activities. Sex between adults and teens is a very widely searched genre as well, with porn titles currently being sold by Comcast NBC Universal including “Teen Petite A-Cup Princesses” and “Innocent Easy Teens in Public.”
Like the tobacco industry, the porn industry has created a massive public health crisis in our country. Jennifer Johnson, associate professor and chair of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University says, “The public likes to think of pornography as a form of sex and morality…but porn is neither one of those. It’s a form of commerce. It’s a big business just like Walmart or the tobacco industry.”
Former family therapist Paula Sellars says it this way, “Pornography is marketing for [the] sex trafficking of women and children. Like any commercial enterprise, commercial sexual exploitation is a matter of supply, distribution and demand.” The demand begins with porn but ends with human trafficking. Human trafficking is a $150 billion business worldwide.
Sellars says that the two biggest demands in the porn industry today are younger victims and more violent sexual behavior. This means the rape and torture of women in currently in high demand for viewers. In a survey of the 50 most popular porn videos, 88% were found to show scenes containing physical violence and 49% showed verbal aggression—87% of which were against women. The women’s response to the violence or aggression (in 95% of the cases) was either neutral or positive (they appeared to find it pleasurable).
Porn has always been strongly statistically linked to violence against women, sex trafficking and child sex abuse. Research shows men who consume mainstream porn express a greater intent to commit rape, and child sex abuse investigators say they almost never investigate a case that doesn’t end and begin with pornography.
The demand for “younger” porn has prompted an increased demand for child sex trafficking victims worldwide. It is estimated that there are 200,000 child victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. alone. Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says, “Commercial child pornography is a $20 billion industry worldwide, fueled by the Internet.” There are over 100,000 websites on the Internet currently offering illegal child pornography.
What Do We Do Now?
I know by now you are probably thinking “Who is this crazy anti-tech person who’s trying to scare me off of screens?” First, let me say for the record: I am not anti-tech. I use my phone and computer every day. There are many positive things to be said about technology. But just because. a responsible adult is allowed to consume alcohol doesn’t mean their children should be allowed to too. Tablets and smartphones were not made for children or teens. There’s a reason you have to be 18 before you can independently sign a contract with a cell phone company.
We now have an overwhelming body of research showing us how screens are harming our kids, and yet I still hear parents saying things like:
My kid won’t be popular if he/she doesn’t have a smartphone. (This tells me far more about the parent than anything.)
My kid needs a smartphone for safety. (Then go ahead and buy a talk/text only phone.)
If I limit my child’s screen time now, he/she will go crazy later on. (This is called “the myth of the forbidden fruit” and it has been proven false.)
I need to let my child learn to set good limits around his screen use now so he can become a responsible digital citizen. (Kids and teens do not have the cognitive capacity to set limits for themselves when it comes to addictive devices. All the digital citizenship training in the world won’t stop your kid from sending that middle-of-the-night tweet that can forever change his future job prospects.)
This is the world in which we live. Every teen I know has a phone. Don’t be such a Luddite. (I hearken back to a parenting adage from yesteryear on this one: Just because “everyone” is doing something doesn’t mean you have to. Everyone might be doing cocaine too. That doesn’t make it okay.)
I already have limits around my kid’s screen time so we’re doing fine. (Many parents who tout their screen time limits are often the same ones who can’t seem to figure out why their teen is so depressed or why their child throws a temper tantrum every time he’s told to get off his device.)
Most parents intuitively know screen time is messing with our kids—dumbing them down and making them more irritable, insecure and unhappy. We see how apathetic and unengaged our children are when forced to interact with the “real world” after spending time on a fast-moving, dopamine-pumping screen. Yet so many parents are still unwilling to pull the plug in their homes because they’re worried their kids will get angry or their fellow parents will judge them or feel judged by them. They also worry their child will somehow “get behind the curve” when it comes to technology. And that part is true. Your child may get behind the curve…as in, she won’t be as adept at using selfie filters that make her look thinner…or he may not be quite as ‘on point’ with his Fortnite dance moves at recess.
As state governments begin toying with the idea of doing away with recess…and school cafeterias…and even face-to-face learning altogether, those of us who care most about our kids’ well-being must come together to advocate for what they really need.
They need socialization and learning experiences that involve authentic relationships with parents, peers and role models (teachers, coaches). No matter what anyone tries to convince you of post-Covid, there is not nor will there ever be a substitute for kids finding all these things in the real world.
People keep echoing the refrain: “We need to all get used to the new normal.” According to data collected at pediatric clinics, one in three children is now using a smartphone or tablet before he/she can walk or talk. There is nothing normal about that.
- Do not buy your kid a smartphone. Not in 4th grade, not in 8th grade. If you must buy your teen a phone, buy one that is talk/text only. A Gabb phone is an excellent choice.
- Do not provide your child with any unstructured, interactive screen time when they get home from school. They get enough of it in school.
- Movies and TV shows can be a healthy part of a child’s favorite leisure time activities, in part because there is a clear end to them. That is what differentiates watching an NBA game from watching an endlessly re-loading loop of videos on YouTube.
- If your kid loves video games, that’s okay, but make sure you know the parental ratings on everything you own and make sure it’s not the only activity he or she enjoys. As long as your child also loves sports, music, art, etc., playing video games with friends for a few hours every week probably won’t be a problem for them. If you see any warning signs of a possible addiction, eliminate the games.
- If you must have a social media account to keep up with out of town friends or relatives, make it a family account. And always remember: Everything you post, every article you like, every person you tag—it all leaves a massive digital footprint that can negatively impact your future and your children’s future in countless ways, big and small.
- Don’t leave a child unattended in his or her bedroom with unfiltered internet access. Learn how to turn Google’s Safe Search on. (Also know that there are ways around Safe Search.) Do your research to find out how predators use technology to groom their victims. Know the types of things your children can be exposed to with one wrong click of a mouse—things that will affect them for the rest of their life.
- Just say no when a child asks to create a social media account. It doesn’t matter if all their friends have one. Even if they do end up “less popular” for not having one, they will also be less depressed, less anxious, less bullied, less isolated, less concerned about their appearance and less hurt by photos from parties or events they didn’t get invited to.
- Read books like Glow Kids, Reset Your Child’s Brain, Screen Schooled, Assassination Generation,etc.
- Encourage Legos not Minecraft…print books not e-readers…board games not video games…creative expression and imaginative play not YouTube.
- Put your own phone away when you’re with your kids. Give them your full attention. There are always emergencies and situations that arise where this is impossible to do, but you do not want your kid’s primary memories to be you looking down at a screen. We have all been classically conditioned to check our phone whenever there’s a dull moment as long as the device is within arm’s reach. So, the only way to stay off your phone when you’re around your kids is to put it in a place that will not be easy for you to get to. Keep it in the glove compartment of your car or a high shelf in the garage or kitchen cupboard.
- Join an organization that’s well-versed on all the research I’ve mentioned. Many groups claim to be concerned about what screens are doing to our kids, but there is only one I believe has a cohesive understanding of the scope of the problem and the most practical solutions for solving it. That group is called ScreenStrong. You can find them at ScreenStrong.com.
Guest author Jennifer Ruisch is a screenwriter who’s been telling parents to get their kids off screens (to no avail) since 2008 after she began researching big tech for a pilot she was writing. She has been a ScreenStrong Ambassador since 2018 and believes in ScreenStrong’s mission to reclaim kids and reconnect families through delaying unnecessary screens until late adolescence.
- Frances E. Jensen, MD, with Amy Ellis Nutt. The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. (New York: Collins, 2016), 28.
- Victoria L. Dunckley, MD. Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan To End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time. (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2015)