Carl Marcy, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says he’s deeply concerned about children embracing screens: “We’re rewiring a generation of humans in an uncontrolled experiment with technology that has devastating consequences. And we need to stop.” “.
A few years ago, Marcy was giving a talk to college students about his work on how screens affect our brains. He could tell they were paying attention—largely because they weren’t listening to their phones.
Then he asked, “How many people here think they have an unhealthy relationship with their phones?” Each hand rose. And I was like, ‘Okay, everyone? So what is going on there? And many people were like: ‘Nobody told us. Nobody said, be careful! And they are crazy.”
a A recent study From the Pew Research Center confirms the degree to which phones have taken over the lives of adolescents. About half of teens report being online “almost constantly,” with girls always slightly more likely to be online, while Hispanic teens are 50 percent more likely to be online than their white peers.
Marcy, author of “Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age,” points out that our smartphone experience has been going on for about 15 years—the iPhone was introduced in 2007—and there’s no excuse for ignoring the lessons those years taught us. We have increased rates of “depression, anxiety, ADHD, substance abuse, and suicide. … We are more distracted, divided, and depressed.”
Last year, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy expressed deep concern about the mental health of young people, indicating that Between 2009 and 2019, there was a 40 percent rise in the number of high school students who said they experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” Technology “can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors such as bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments that young people need and deserve,” Murthy argued.
The NIH study began in 2018 It found that children who spent more than two hours per day of their free time on devices performed worse on tests of thinking, language and memory than children who spent less time on devices. and use of his devices I jumped over the past few years. In 2015, about 40 percent of 12-year-olds had their own phone. Now more than 70 percent do.
Marcy fears that in the long term, using the phone will change children’s brains, especially the prefrontal cortex, which helps us – among other things – to control impulses and make good decisions.
Even in our mid-20s, our prefrontal cortex is still developing, and multitasking (a huge part of what we do with our phones) puts tremendous stress on our prefrontal cortex. In fact, study after study has shown that both children and adults are bad at multitasking.
Michael Rich, MD, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital who focuses on children and media, puts it bluntly that “Our human brain only thinks in one channel at a time. Switching tasks, which we actually do, is a terrible way to do anything.”
But if you’re a teen who’s dying to grab a phone, the neuroscience facts may not matter. And even those of us with a fully developed prefrontal cortex struggle mightily to put our phones down.
It is by design. Much like slot machines, email and social media apps offer spot bonuses. Sometimes you get a message from someone you really love, your boss, or your enemies. But not often.
Of course, the feeling of victory when you get one of those precious letters is fleeting. And just like in the casino, the house always wins in the long run.
“The overarching goal of companies creating interactive digital experiences, particularly online games and video, is to foster behavior that keeps users coming back,” Marcy writes in Rewired.
And it sees kids lose massive amounts of sleep, because having a phone available all night is an almost irresistible temptation. “I tell parents, if there was only one rule, if you were to make only one recommendation, it would be this: Take the phone away at least an hour before bedtime.”
At Children’s Hospital, where Rich runs the Interactive Media and Internet Disorders Clinic, he sees families getting phones for children at an early age. And quite frankly, wireless companies are always trying to expand their market. And so they go deep into childhood.” Rich believes that companies are also trying to convince parents that phones offer children a measure of safety.
But for Marcy, our community-wide experience with babies and screens isn’t safe. The urge to return to Twitter, TikTok or YouTube has turned phones, he says, into “mood regulators,” ways to deal with boredom, anger or anxiety. “And the really insidious thing is that the earlier you start doing it, the more dependent you will be. Like, I’m already struggling with my 9-year-old. … Just go play the piano, go run outside. Do anything but calm down yourself using YouTube. Because I can feel it — I can see he’s attracted to it.”
Lawmakers can feel the parents’ concern. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey is a co-sponsor of the Children’s law, aimed at addressing youth overuse – and abuse – of online platforms. “The handful of powerful online platforms where children and teens spend most of their time online are inherently harmful to them,” Marky wrote.
So, in a world full of phones, what should parents do?
Both Marcy and Rich insist that not all children are the same, and that setting an exact age at which each child should have a phone just doesn’t make sense. Marcy offers a combination: “I think the answer is 14 to 16. I’d say 18, but that’s not going to happen, is it?”
Rich generally agrees that high school is the time to introduce phones, though he understands how difficult it can be to be the only kid in middle school without a phone.
Both doctors note that foldable phones are a good place to start — kids can text and make calls, but they can’t use the phone for games, videos, or social media.
It is very important for parents to set a good example. “Our use of the devices is what they’ll emulate,” Rich says. “The double standard of a dad on his phone at dinner answering emails and yelling at a kid for playing video games, that’s just child hypocrisy.”
Rich argues that parents should think of phones as tools. And they should ask their children why they need the phone, and what purpose this phone will be useful for. You wouldn’t get your child a chainsaw – a different type of power tool – without making sure they know what they’re doing with it.
The truth is, kids already understand the impact of phones. Most teens who told Pew they were “almost constantly” online felt they were “on social media too much.” The results of our 15 years The experience with children and phones is becoming increasingly evident. Kids know that, and so do we.
Follow Kara Miller on Twitter @tweet.
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