More On: smartphones
The most effective answer to the teen mental health epidemic is to prevent this connection to screens. This is something that no one likes to admit.
Today's youth, particularly teenage girls, are experiencing a mental health crisis. Matt Richter analyzes this troubling tendency in a new column in the New York Times, concentrating on the tale of M, an apparently intelligent girl with promise who eventually suffers from gender dysphoria, anxiety, depression, and self-harm.
M's troubles started at the end of elementary school and swiftly became worse as she entered middle school. Elaniv, one of her classmates, went through the same thing and committed suicide at the age of 15. M's parents were understandably concerned, and they attempted a variety of approaches, including medicine and therapy, since, as one psychologist put it, "it's life or death for these kids."
It's a tragic narrative that's all too common these days. Young people today appear to be the most unhappy, despite the fact that they are safer, wealthier, and considerably more comfortable than earlier generations.
So, what went wrong? Why are so many young people breaking down? It's fairly clear for me as a teacher and anyone else who interacts with teenagers: screens and social media. When children are given a smartphone or tablet, they spend an increasing amount of time on it. They absorb immoral and hazardous stuff that distorts their perceptions of reality and encourages them to damage themselves. As a result, they withdraw from everyone around them, experience intense loneliness, and grow progressively detached from reality.
In Richter's piece, this explanation never seems to occur to anyone. M gets a phone at the age of ten, her school reports that she is unable to concentrate in class, she begins to use different pronouns, she names herself after an anime character who stabs men with scissors, she has frequent emotional meltdowns and begins cutting herself, and she complains about being lonely.
"The [mental health] crisis is commonly attributed to the rise of social media," Richter writes, "but reliable data on the topic is sparse, the conclusions are complicated and often conflicting, and certain teenagers appear to be more vulnerable than others to the impacts of screen time." To put it another way, the data on screens and social media is mixed, thus it isn't worth examining.
It's difficult to tell whether such nonsense reasoning is deliberate or not. In any case, many people who defend children's unlimited access to screens still make this argument. As a result, a complete reply is required.
Richter's remark that social media and technology science is "limited" and conclusions vary depending on individual applications is just another way of arguing that correlation does not always imply causation. Sure, difficulties began to arise when M obtained a smartphone and began viewing violent anime on it, but this does not imply that the smartphone was to blame. After all, many other people have smartphones and watch violent anime on them, and they don't have the same issues.
To establish that the smartphone clearly caused M's pain, one does not need to infer from correlation. The consequences of the smartphone are readily obvious to all. This is where M gathers her thoughts and spends her time. She wouldn't know about adopting different gender identities, violent anime characters, or cutting herself for comfort if she didn't have it. She would be blameless.
Another fundamental mistake that prevents Richter and others from blaming the smartphone is their misunderstanding of the term "mental health." This term has expanded to encompass everything from serious schizophrenia to a person who is simply stressed out one day. It's nearly hard to comprehend what pampered superstars like Prince Harry and Will Smith mean when they talk about their mental health. Applying this label to youth who commit suicide or have nervous breakdowns merely serves to hide the problem.
What M and so many of her contemporaries are going through is more accurately termed as "screen addiction" and "consuming unsuitable stuff." Sure, these two issues contributed to her poor mental health, but the source of her difficulty and the potential solution are both linked to her screen time.
Finally, the inclusion of extraneous information and ineffective testimony from numerous "experts" detracts from the main point. "By many measures, kids are doing wonderful and thriving," Dr. Candice Odgers says, as if to rationalize the dismal truth of mass dysfunction. However, there are certain major patterns in anxiety, sadness, and suicide that are halting our progress."
So, what's the worst case scenario? More kids binge-watching social media, having mental breakdowns, taking prescription medicines, and perhaps committing suicide, or more teens binge-watching social media, smoking, doing drugs, and possibly getting pregnant?
Most people should select the former condition if they have to choose—and it's unclear whether this is a choice because this topic isn't examined. In a screen-free environment, children have significantly more freedom, and parents can simply intervene if something goes wrong. Kids are relentlessly brainwashing themselves in a screen-saturated environment, while parents watch helplessly.
M and other children in similar situations are facing a tremendous uphill battle at this stage. The smartphone cannot be taken away by the parents. This could cause her a great deal of distress and drive her over the edge. M's mother Linda already feels "judged" by her grandparents' criticism of "M's pronouns and excessive screen use."
When tackling the source of the problem, considerable sensitivity and patience are required, and Richter, to his credit, makes this point in his essay. However, no matter how tough it is to confront a teenager's attachment to her smartphone, the only way to recover is to wean her off the screen gradually.
Of course, the most effective answer to the mental health crises affecting teenagers is to prevent this relationship in the first place. This is something that no one likes to admit. The majority of parents are also addicted to their devices. The sooner they accept this, though, the better off they and their children will be. After all is said and done, putting the screen away is critical to our collective "mental health," as well as everything else that makes life worthwhile.