Childhood Is Broken in the Digital Age... Let's Fix It

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Time magazine's November 7, 2016 cover story, "The Kids Are Not All Right," reveals that our children and teens are tormented by dangerously high rates of depression, self-injurious cutting, and other serious emotional problems. Author Susanna Schrobsdorff connects this generation's suffering to the often hopeless and menacing cyberworld they inhabit: elementary schoolers are cyberbullied on social media, teens scroll through grisly photos of self-mutilation online, and--pouring salt into the wounds--kids' digital immersion cuts them off from needed family connections.

"Even though teens may be in the same room with their parents, they might also, thanks to their phones, be immersed in a painful emotional tangle with dozens of their classmates," Schrobsdorff writes. "Or they're looking at other people's lives on Instagram and feeling self-loathing (or worse). Or they're caught up in a discussion about suicide with a bunch of people on the other side of the country they've never even met via an app that most adults have never heard of."

Many factors explain why America's kids increasingly immerse themselves in dark cyberspaces at the expense of engaging with family, school, and other essential real-world activities. Social media, video games, and the like offer a convenient babysitter for today's parents who work longer hours than those of decades past. Moreover, addictive technologies draw kids like moths to a flame. Yet, no factor has pushed youth digital immersion more than decades of flawed pop-culture parenting advice that has convinced parents and schools to turn kids loose with digital devices.

Leading Parents and Educators Astray

Soon after the new millennium, as America grappled with an explosion in consumer technologies, influential video game developer Marc Prensky promoted a paradigm to guide how parents and teachers should manage kids' technology: the digital native-digital immigrant concept.

Prensky labeled children "digital natives," claiming they're tech experts because they have grown up "surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age." In turn, he characterized parents and teachers as "digital immigrants," relatively unsophisticated on matters of technology. Prensky therefore encouraged a reversal in the traditional family hierarchy, suggesting that parents should obey their kids as they demand more video games, cell phones, portables, and online subscriptions.

A number of popular tech pundits followed Prensky's lead, asserting that parents should back away from guiding kids' tech. In her 2014 Time magazine article, Danah Boyd, the author of It's Complicated, told parents to "Let Kids Run Wild Online," and likewise branded parents who set tech limits "fearful."

Many American parents and schools have latched on to the digital native-digital immigrant belief since, at face value, it can appear spot on. Watching a preteen flip through a tablet or a teen multitask on a phone can seem to confirm the notion that kids are tech whizzes who need little guidance.

However, brain-imaging studies are showing that the teen brain is highly sensation seeking, while its judgment center, the prefrontal cortex, remains immature. Teens are therefore notoriously bad at limiting their own use of seductive entertainment technologies. In contrast, the more developed prefrontal cortices of parents, teachers, and other caring adults help youth grasp what they cannot alone: how kids' tendency to overuse playtime technologies is likely to erode their bonds with family, damage emotional health, hinder academic success, and increase the risk of developing a tech addiction. Parents, teachers, and other adult caregivers must therefore provide children and teenagers with strong guidance on tech.

When a Generation of Kids Runs Wild Online

While patently false, the digital native-digital immigrant belief is the defining blueprint for how American youth now use tech. Parents from my clinical practice stare at me in astonishment when I suggest the need to limit kids' devices: "But she'll get angry if I set rules on her phone." In fact, across the nation, parents have turned their kids loose on screens and devices. According to a national study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, "The majority of 8- to 18-year-olds say they don't have any rules about the type of media content they can use or the amount of time they can spend with the medium." Schools, too, are increasingly giving students free rein to use phones throughout the day, even in class.

With parents and schools backing away, it's no surprise that the time kids spend on entertainment technologies has exploded, while the time they spend using technology to learn is trivial by comparison. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, teens now spend 8 hours every day playing with phones and screens, while they only spend 16 minutes a day using the computer at home for school.

Mending a Broken Childhood

I have previously written that our kids' overuse of playtime technologies is leading to a generation of smartphone experts who struggle with the learning basics that colleges use to gauge admission--an alarming two-thirds of American teens now score "below proficient" in reading, and this same percentage score "below proficient" in math. The recent Time magazine article revealing that America's wired-up kids also experience epidemic levels of emotional problems completes this picture: As time with tech soars, mental health and academic skills are sinking. Childhood is broken in the digital age.

To help our kids, I recommend that parents and schools look to how leading tech execs have raised their own children. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and many other tech industry leaders have rejected the digital native-digital immigrant myth, and instead provided their kids strong tech rules. Such limits are needed if kids are to engage with their families that--even in this digital age--are the cornerstone of their emotional well-being. Setting tech rules also helps children focus on their studies and learn to use technology productively.

Make no mistake, guiding children's and teens' tech use demands far more effort from adults than just handing over a device. But that's a small price to pay for fixing what is so clearly broken in our young peoples' lives.