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Cellphones are creating a generation of disengaged youth

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Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of “The Ethical Life” podcast.

This week the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, issued a warning about the dangers of social media usage for kids. He stated that “as of 2021, eighth and 10th graders now spend an average of 3½ hours per day” and that “adolescents who spent more than 3 hours per day on social media faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

The report goes on to say that “frequent social media use may be associated with distinct changes in the developing brain in the amygdala (important for emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (important for impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behavior), and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.”

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This warning, coming from the nation’s chief health authority, is long overdue, and it ought to encourage changes in how social media use is monitored by parents and regulated by government agencies.

But the scope of the surgeon general’s report is far too narrow.

Social media is a significant contributor to mental health decline among the nation’s youth. But it is not just the content of social media platforms that is at fault; it is also the technology used to deliver the content.

Consider this. About 97% of American teens have their own cellphones, and they use them constantly. A report from Common Sense Media revealed that in 2021, tweens and teens (8 to 18 years old) spent an average of 8 hours and 39 minutes each day in front of a screen. Children from middle- and lower-income households spent about 2 hours a day more on screens than children from higher-income households.

On April 26, Dillon Reeves, a seventh-grader riding home from school, noticed the bus swerving and saw that something was wrong with the driver. He jumped up from his seat, grabbed the steering wheel, applied the brakes and shouted for someone to call 911. He had to repeat himself, because the other kids were too busy screaming to hear what he said.

Of the 60 kids on the bus, Dillon was the only one without a cellphone.

Two things stand out in this story: Dillon noticed what was happening around him; he also knew what to do.

Noticing what is going on around one is a matter of paying attention. We always attend to the things we value. The fact that so many kids are not paying attention to the people and events around them is a sign they do not care about what is happening outside their heads.

Knowing what to do is a matter of competence. It takes practice to learn how to engage with the world of things. If one watches the video of the bus incident, one can see Dillon rush to the front of the bus, turn the wheel, apply the brakes and shift the transmission into park. He knew what to do in a crisis because he had practiced it.

Noting that so many of Dillon’s classmates were either unaware of what was going on or unable to respond in the moment is not a judgment about their character; it is an observation about how their activities are shaping their character.

We are raising a generation of children who are more disengaged from the world around them than any generation in history. It doesn’t matter whether they are using social media, texting or playing games on their phones. While their minds are occupied by what’s on the screen they are not attending to the real world.

Cellphones are just one of numerous technologies that promise to give us more power and more freedom. It is no wonder children are drawn to them. The devices provide access all kinds of entertainments, information and distractions. Cellphones fill the empty time and relieve one of boredom. They make it possible to get through the hours without the hard work of learning to deal with the frustrations of people and things that refuse to comply with one’s will.

Having a cellphone means we do not have to look for landmarks or stop and ask for directions when we are traveling. We don’t have to ask a stranger for advice or notice what is happening with the weather. They allow us to be more self-sufficient but also less capable at the same time. We can have connections to more people but less ability to engage them in meaningful conversation. They make our lives both busier and lonelier, more informed and less competent.

Every technology has a price, both in its acquisition and its use. When we forget that a cellphone is a tool and not a way of life, the price is too high.

There is no question that cellphones are making our children’s lives worse. But it’s not their fault.

The lesson of Dillon Reeves’ story is that the adults in the world are not paying attention to our children’s genuine needs. What we pay attention to reveals what we value. It is hard to escape the conclusion that we do not value our children’s well-being as much as we value our own profit and convenience. We have supplied our children with a powerful but addictive tool and given them no meaningful guidelines on using that tool responsibly.

Spending time in the real world is not easy, but it is healthy. It is good for our kids and good for our communities. It may even save lives.

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