Social Media Created a Mental Health Epidemic in Kids
Social Media Created a Mental Health Epidemic in Kids
Written By Kathy Athearn   |   04.29.24
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Most parents and teachers have noticed the severe increase in depression and anxiety among young children and teenagers over the last decade. Many have speculated that smartphones and social media cause these mental health and behavior problems. It turns out that they were right. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has extensively researched the effects of social media on kids and has written about them in his New York Times bestselling book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.”

Mental Health of Adolescents Plunged in the Early 2010s

Haidt explains, “After more than a decade of stability or improvement, the mental health of adolescents plunged in the early 2010s. Rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide rose sharply, more than doubling on many measures.” He says that the dramatic movement of childhood from an active, creative world into the virtual world has disrupted their social and neurological development. Devastatingly, self-harm and suicide rates among children have drastically increased.

He writes, “Note that suicide rates today are higher for adolescent girls than any point previously recorded. In fact, suicide rates are higher for Gen Z girls in the United States, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand than any previous generation when they were young.”

Clare Morell at the Ethics and Public Policy Center has also researched this subject extensively and is horrified by the number of suicides being committed by — not only teenagers — but younger children as well. She writes, “We now live in a country where 11-year-olds are committing suicide. How can a child feel so hopeless at the age of 11 — with their whole life in front of them — that they think life isn’t worth living?”

Morell is educating and motivating public officials in Washington, D.C. and throughout the country to pass laws that will eliminate this social media-induced mental health crisis among young people. She writes, “Big Tech is a predatory industry, like casinos, alcohol, and tobacco. Its products are designed to addict and exploit our children and their brain’s vulnerabilities.”

As a result, she says, “studies show that kids’ brains are literally being rewired by social media and its dopamine effects. Children’s attention spans and ability to focus for longer periods of time are declining. ADHD and autism are on the rise. Dr. Victoria Dunkley, who wrote the book ‘Reset Your Child’s Brain,’ would require that patients undergo a complete digital detox for four to six weeks before she would begin treating them for ADHD or autism. She found that the majority of symptoms would resolve on their own just by completing a four to six-week digital detox. In some cases, the symptoms resolved entirely, because they were not actually underlying ADHD or autism, but rather screen-induced symptoms that mimicked those conditions.”

Social media addiction is also linked to eating disorders and pornography. Sadly, most kids have been exposed to pornography at an early age because it’s on YouTube, TikTok, Spotify, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, and SnapChat. Nearly one in three teen girls have been approached on social media by adults asking for nude pictures.

“Dopamine Robots”: Social Media and Phones Are Leading Us Into a Civilizational Crisis With Fewer Marriages and Families

Morrell warns that Gen Z’s addiction to phones and social media is putting us into a civilizational crisis. She warns:

“We are allowing an entire generation to grow up online. They have become dopamine robots. They don’t know how to form real-life relationships. The ever-present distraction and escape mean they don’t have to confront real-life disappointments and emotions. They aren’t building the skill of resiliency. They are never bored and can always be entertained, neutering their natural abilities to be imaginative and creative. We are losing what it means to be human. And what does this mean for the future of marriage and family formation, the building blocks of civilization? They are becoming utterly destabilized.”

Haidt’s research also shows that since the early 2010s, there have been substantial declines in academic performance, sleep, time with friends in-person, and exercise. He proposes four new norms for society to solve this mental health crisis facing children all over the world:

  1. No smartphones before high school.
  2. No social media before 16.
  3. Phone-free schools.
  4. More independence, free play, and responsibility in the real world.

Parents and Schools Need the Government’s Help to Protect Children

While there is a lot of helpful parental control software, parents need additional help. Not all social media companies allow parents to access their child’s content. In addition, not all children have parents that are paying attention to what they’re doing online and are not taking steps to protect them. Moreover, even children who are not on social media are negatively impacted by it.

Morell explains:

“Furthermore, the problem of social media is not a private one. It’s been shown that social media use by even a few children in a school or organization creates a “network effect,” so even those who do not use social media are affected by how it changes the entire social environment. For example, if all the teens in a class are interacting and socializing through Instagram and a few in the class are not on Instagram, those few can still experience negative impacts of social media indirectly, feelings of loneliness and isolation, depression, and anxiety. The harms of social media need not flow through individual users, but can affect children by changing their peer social dynamics. Even if parents choose to fight the difficult individual battles to keep their child off these platforms, it is not enough to shield them from all its effects.”

Just as there are legal age limits to protect minors from casinos, tobacco, and drugs, Congress should pass legislation as soon as possible to protect minors from social media. Thankfully, there are several bipartisan bills that have been introduced, including the Protecting Kids from Social Media Act, the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, the Kids Online Safety Act, and most recently the American Privacy Rights Act.

U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) highlighted the new American Privacy Rights Act at the April 17 U.S. House Innovation, Data, and Commerce Subcommittee hearing titled “Legislative Solutions to Protect Kids Online and Ensure Americans’ Data Privacy Rights.”

As she put it:

“We’re putting people back in control of who they are, what they think, and how they live their lives. This is especially necessary for our children. As a mom of three school-aged children, Big Tech platforms are my biggest fear. The algorithms developed by these companies are specifically designed to get kids addicted to their platforms, and they’ve been used to target children with content that leads to dangerous, life-threatening behaviors. For me and my husband, as well as millions of parents across the country, this is a battle for our kids’ development, their mental health, and ultimately, their safety. We must build a better future for our children. They are our future.”

Kathy Athearn
Kathy Athearn is a correspondence writer at Family Research Council. She is passionate about applying a biblical worldview to the public sphere. She and her husband live in West Michigan with their three children....
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