BETHLEHEM — Parenting has never been for the faint of heart. Keeping children safe from the many and varied external threats in the world around us and guarding against the wounds imposed by childhood itself, such as the bullying, exclusion and retaliatory behaviors that children so often inflict on each other, while at the same time encouraging them to explore, learn and be independent has always presented a minefield fraught with uncertainty, compromise and more than a few tears.
Now, however, in the age of the smartphone, parents and educators are presented with a new and virtually inescapable social conundrum.
To allow a developing mind with unguided access to much of the content available online certainly comes with obvious problems, not to mention the prevalence of cyber-bullying and online peer pressure. However, there is also a growing concern about how that kind of constant connection and barrage of likes, invites and updates is affecting the mental health of our youth.
However, when every other child in school has one of these devices, to deny one’s own child might feel a bit like punishment rather than honest concern for their well-being. Certainly no one wants to turn his or her own child into a social outcast. It is also true that having a way to contact family, especially in cases of emergency, can be comforting.
So how is a parent to proceed?
A national conversation has arisen surrounding the use of smart-tech devices, and how to use them in healthy and “humane” ways. One local parent has decided she would like to have that very conversation here in Bethlehem. After confirming on Facebook that other parents are interested in the topic, she reserved the community room at the Bethlehem Public Library and will be hosting a public meeting this Sunday, March 4, between 1 and 3 p.m.
Marietta Angelotti said she was first inspired to learn more after reading Jean Twenge, a much-cited generational psychologist who wrote a book called “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us.” Twenge was excerpted in Atlantic magazine, the title of which claims that post-Millennials are “on the brink of a mental health crisis.”
In her work, Twenge claims that an abrupt and unusually steep decline in teen behavior and emotional states began in 2012, at the same time that the percentage of Americans who owned a smartphone passed 50 percent. “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives,” she wrote, “from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation in every type of household.” Rates of teen depression, she said, have “skyrocketed” since 2011.
“There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives— and making them seriously unhappy,” wrote Twenge, who contends that the post-Millennial “iGen” generation is developing later, delaying independence and, more generally, wasting valuable time as they sit staring at their phones, “and often distressed.”
A survey funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found teens who spend more time staring at screens are more likely to be unhappy, without exception. According to the Atlantic article, teens who spend three hours or more a day on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, “such as making a plan.”
“Social networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends,” wrote Twenge. “But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation.”
A group out of Silicon Valley, headed up by Tristan Harris, a former in-house ethicist at Google, recently announced the creation of the Center for Human Technology, a group of former employees and investors at companies such as Apple and Facebook, will work with the nonprofit media watchdog group Common Sense Media to launch an anti-tech addiction campaign that plans to spend millions educating parents, teachers and students about the dangers of new technology and heavy use of social media. The group also plans to lobby for laws seeking to limit the power companies have to target children and commission research on the impact technology is having on children. (In January, two major Apple investors asked that company to study those impacts as well, and to make it easier to limit children’s use of their devices.)
The Center for Human Technology is composed of many early programmers who created some of the very tech they are now pushing back against. “What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children,” reads the first page on the website.
“Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google have produced amazing products that have benefited the world enormously,” says the site. “But these companies are also caught in a zero-sum race for our finite attention, which they need to make money. Constantly forced to outperform their competitors, they must use increasingly persuasive techniques to keep us glued. They point AI-driven news feeds, content, and notifications at our minds, continually learning how to hook us more deeply—from our behavior.”
Melinda Gates published an op-ed in the Washington Post last summer entitled, “I spent my career in technology. I wasn’t prepared for its effect on my kids,” in which she talked about the pace at which the media landscape has changed and offered resources for parents concerned about their childrens’ media consumption. She said she hoped to inspire parents to become resources for each other, and have conversations about the issue, which is exactly what Angelotti wants to do.
Angelotti, who is planning the event with the support of the Bethlehem Healthy Kids Committee, said she has been speaking with other parents in an effort to come up with activities to get the ball rolling, but much will depend on how many people show up. “If there are only ten of us, we’ll sit in a circle,” she said. “If there are 50, we’ll probably break up into groups and then report back.” She will likely show a brief film or two and intends to have visual information for those who are less familiar with the latest research.
Angelotti also said she feels this initial conversation should take place between the adults, although she doesn’t intend to eject any children who may show up. “I certainly don’t want anyone to talk about anything private or anything that might embarrass their child,” she said. “But I also think that, when it comes to cell phones, sometimes parents are a little scared of their kids.”
Now that a larger conversation is taking place, Angelotti feels this is an opportune time to address the dangers of technology as a local community. “Seems like there’s always this assertion that it’s a private, family discussion and choice, but phones are everywhere. It’s not really something that can be addressed one student or child at a time. You can take one kid’s phone away and they’re just going to borrow a friend’s and be right back on social media.”
A mother from Austin, Texas, has created a movement, called Wait Until 8th, in an attempt to persuade parents to refrain from buying smartphones for their children until at least eighth grade. Last spring, she began asking parents to sign a pledge. While Angelotti feels that may still be a bit young, she likes that it has brought the conversation, and search for solutions, out into local communities. As of early January, more than 6,700 parents had signed the pledge.
While there are other options, said Angelotti, none are terribly easy, nor are they foolproof. Controls and settings meant to limit access, she said, are universally easy to work around. In schools, personal smart devices could be locked into special pouches, such as those used at some live performances that don’t allow recording, for the duration of the school day. Angelotti also noted that there are plenty of flip phones still on the market.
It’s never easy to fight with a teen or pre-teen, especially when it comes to the all-consuming need to be accepted by one’s peers, but Angelotti said limiting her daughter’s screen time has allowed her time to renew interests in the real world, such as learning Japanese and playing the piano.
Currently, in the Bethlehem Central School District, policy guiding the use of smartphones and other media devices is set by the classroom teacher. In the cafeteria, students may use their phones for any purposes and, in the halls and library, they are expected to restrict use to academic purposes. Angelotti said she asked the district whether it would be open to placing more limits on smartphone usage and was told by Superintendent Jody Monroe that it would not, but she hopes that educators in the district might be inspired to stop in and share their thoughts and stories on Sunday, as well as anyone who works with children and teens.
According to the district, Monroe explained to Angelotti that the district does not prohibit the devices, “since we do believe this is an educational decision that our staff need to make based upon their lessons and activities.”
In the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District, middle school students are not allowed to have phones in their possession but may keep them turned off in their locker. According to a teacher at the school, phones are generally confiscated on a first offense or after a warning is given. “We’re not naive,” said Jennifer Jaskolka. “We know the kids have them, but they are usually off and we do not see them.” According to Jaskolska, the older kids are the more common offenders. “The seventh graders,” she said, “are pretty good about hiding them or keeping them in their lockers.”
“Even we, as adults, struggle with addiction,” said Angelotti, who is a family physician as well as a mother. “And our brains are much more developed. Kids just don’t have the frontal lobe development. I know that often parents are embarrassed about how they can’t control their kids online, but they need to know that, look, here are the design features that they put into your apps to make them more addictive, to hack into your kid’s brains.”
Those who attend the discussion can expect to hear about the current research, learn about the apps children are using, and share concerns and solutions with other local parents and caregivers.
“We’ve had our fun time, but the honeymoon is over with these cool devices,” said Angelotti. “Now we need to talk about what we can do so they’re not such a destructive force in our society.”