Abandoning children on the Internet has dire consequences, just ask Gen Z | GUEST COMMENT

what have we done First, we abandoned children to television, then to video games, and now to the Internet and social media.

If anyone doubts the harm done to children by the Internet and social media, then Jonathan Haidt’s must-read book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” will convince you otherwise. Haidt presents powerful data on the emerging epidemic of anxiety and depression since 2010, when smartphones became readily available and were soon in the hands of most adults and many children. And while children were overprotected in the real world by parents who were afraid to let them go outside, they were underprotected in a virtual world, consuming and rewiring their brains.

As a child psychiatrist, I have been concerned for years about the impact of the media on children and adolescents. The large amount of time spent consuming media and violent content were warning signs. However, technology advanced at a rapid pace and research could not keep up. The generation of children born in the late 1990s, identified as Gen Z, became a naturalistic experiment as they went through puberty with smartphones in hand, providing largely free access on the Internet and social networks.

Dr. Haidt’s book is compelling for several reasons. First, it is very well researched with notes and references. The case for the rise of mental illness is described using data from the “Anglosphere”: Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The data is presented in easy-to-read text and graphics showing alarming increases in anxiety, depression and self-harm in teenagers since 2012. Each section of the book also has a concisely written summary of the takeaway messages

As online media use increased, parents overprotected their children by restricting real-world play and learning. Haidt educates the reader about the importance of play, which involves risk, fear, and excitement that is gradually mastered so that one is better equipped to enter adulthood. If one reaches young adulthood without this mastery, then fear and anxiety arise. Time spent on media displaces time that would otherwise be spent interacting with the natural world with peers and adults.

The third section of the book describes the re-wiring process that occurs in the adolescent brain through constant exposure to social media, designed as it uses algorithms that increase dopamine, the addiction model. Social media companies are aware of this and knowingly exploit children, a point supported by the 2021 testimony of congressional whistleblower Francis Haugen, a former Facebook employee. Constant use of smartphones during childhood thus causes four fundamental harms: social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation and addiction.

Haidt also describes the different impact social media has on girls versus boys, while acknowledging the fluidity of gender during adolescence. While girls are being shamed for their bodies with algorithms designed to link them to diet and self-harm websites, boys are watching porn and playing endless hours of violent multiplayer online video games.

The final section of the book calls for collective action by government, tech companies, schools and parents. Haidt acknowledges the difficulty of the recommendations by reflecting on his own phone use. He points out that parents need to change the way they interact with their phones if they have any chance of success with their children. He advises parents to seek out other like-minded parents so that their child is not rejected and looked down upon.

As for schools, he insists they become phone-free to allow both education and social-emotional growth to occur. This recommendation is one that does not require legislation and could be adopted on a school district by school district basis.

As I read the recommendations for government action, the need for real age verification and penalties for tech company executives who prey on young people, just as cigarette company leaders did in the past , my heart sank with déjà vu. I thought about my sad conclusion years ago that ours is a culture that sees childhood as just another market to be acquired: more eyeballs to possess, more young customers to become addicted and use throughout their lives.

We are a long way from protecting children as their brains grow and mature. We must move quickly or, as it warns, the next generation will not be ready for the challenges of adulthood. Dire consequences await us if we do not act now.

Dr. V. Susan Villani (vsusanvillani@gmail.com) is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist in Baltimore.

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