Could a smartphone destroy my child’s soul? A technological examination of conscience for parents
In the 18 years since I graduated from high school, nearly every aspect of childhood and adolescence in the United States has been altered by smartphones and social media. No matter how my husband and I decide to mediate our children’s relationship to these technologies, their lives and the lives of everyone they know will be shaped to a large extent by the ways in which the world they inhabit and inherit has morphed to revolve around these pocket-sized super-computers on which we now conduct so much of our personal, professional and civic lives.
My sons are 7, 6 and 2. When should I get them smartphones? How about iPads? At what age are social media accounts appropriate? If I walked up to any group of my fellow Catholic (or, for that matter, non-Catholic) parents and asked the aforementioned questions, I would get many different answers. But it is likely that these answers would be delivered with just a few overarching emotions: uncertainty, concern and a sense of being overwhelmed.
One of the reasons for this is that behind these basic questions are much larger philosophical ones: What aspects of yesteryear’s childhoods have been replaced by screens? What have we gained and lost in this trade-off? How do we protect our children from mature and disturbing content (sexual, violent and otherwise) that is more readily accessible than ever before? How are children and teens affected by the constant curation of self that is incentivized by social media? Are boys and girls generally affected in the same ways, or in different ones? And what can be done about any of it?
In her bookiGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us), published in 2017, the psychology professor Jean Twenge offers detailed insight into the technological and social landscape faced by those she terms “iGen,” referring to people born in 1995 and later.
Online and on social media, today’s children—especially girls—are constantly measuring their own lives against curated and “relentlessly positive” images of their peers’ lives.
According to Dr. Twenge, who drew her research from surveys of 11 million Americans since the 1960s as well as from personal interactions with today’s kids, iGen spends so much time online that they rarely read and, even more concerning, spend less time in-person with peers than any generation on record. As a result, in some ways they are “physically safer than ever” (teens can’t get pregnant or impregnate someone else alone, and they are less likely to drink or use illicit drugs absent peer pressure) but “more mentally vulnerable” (Dr. Twenge’s chart showing how increased time on electronic devices correlates with unhappiness and suicide is jarring).
Any attempt to create a cohesive plan for helping children to navigate cellphones and the technology and media that come with them must begin with a closer look at some very real challenges.
The Seductive Power of Fake Reality
Online and on social media, today’s children—especially girls—are constantly measuring their own lives against curated and what Dr. Twenge describes as “relentlessly positive” images of their peers’ lives, and feeling unworthy when their reality cannot match up to this new juggernaut designed to stoke adolescent insecurity: fantasy that is being marketed as reality and that turns smartphone users into helpless masochists as algorithms designed to addict fully functioning adults render our children unable to look away.
If, 20 years ago, some girls created “burn books” with mean comments about their less popular peers or pointedly excluded one girl from a party (per Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls,” the 2004 hit movie about my own millennial era’s iteration of high school cliquishness), feelings might be hurt by that cruelty, and understandably so. But that kind of jockeying for popularity and position among adolescent girls is as old as the hills; my mother and even my grandmother could tell stories like these from their high school days in the 1970s and 1940s—and those stories are not so different from my own. In all three cases, these mostly one-off occurrences were separated by literally thousands of other in-person interactions.
But this new reality of constant online exposure of oneself and of others is a form of spiritual poison. Today popularity and seeming worthiness can be actively quantified through likes and clicks, and identity becomes something that one must constantly proclaim through premeditated words and pictures (rather than something one organically reveals face-to-face). Or, as one of the nation’s leading addiction experts, Nicholas Kardaras, author of the 2016 bookGlow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Kids—and How to Break the Trance, has called it: “digital morphine.”
People currently in their early to mid-20s were the “life as internet-enabled smartphone” guinea pigs. It is not any particular person’s fault that we failed them, but fail them we did.
As in-person interaction continues to be replaced by online engagement, it is no wonder that rates of mental health problems, depression and suicide among adolescents continue to climb. That there was a sharp uptick during the pandemic—when schools were closed and socialization went fully online—makes sense.
The Cultivation of Psychological Fragility
The challenges of the online world become even more troubling in light of some offline developmental trends among young people. According to Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt, co-founders of The Let Grow Project, today’s children and teens are vulnerable to unhealthy levels of anxiety in part because they have never been given the opportunity to cultivate physical or mental resilience. Some of this comes down to parenting philosophies. Helicopter moms predate nonstop smartphone use among children, but allowing excessive screen time in place of more “dangerous” activities can rise from a desire to insulate children from harm.
We have all heard the stories of teenagers who are afraid to sit alone in restaurants or talk to waiters. We have seen the trends of college students believing that certain words actually constitute (not just invite, but are) violence, and witnessed twenty-somethings stage walk-outs at companies that do things like offer a platform to comedians who have utterly mainstream ideas.
These developments are, according to Ms. Skenazy and Mr. Haidt, the result of the fact that childhoods without any opportunity for real-life risk-taking have become the norm: “Having been told that the world is so scary that they always need someone supervising them, the kids have internalized it.” Moreover, having been told that unkind words from random people can permanently wound them and others, they dutifully internalize every kind of prejudice that they can find online (hint: every kind); mistake disagreement for intolerance; and, given what they believe to be the stakes, devolve into puddles of anxiety when they can’t convince faceless online accounts to agree.
People currently in their early to mid-20s were the “life as internet-enabled smartphone” guinea pigs. It is not any particular person’s fault that we failed them, but fail them we did. Now the results are in, and we need to heed the call to do better.
Allowing the thoughtless use of technology—with its incessant presence—to blunt our spiritual faculties is a grave mistake.
Coping Thoughtfully With the Problem
In an effort to find a way forward, I spoke with five people who have unique insights into how smartphones and other technology interact with American childhood—particularly in Catholic families and institutions—today. Each of these individuals helped me to consider questions about my kids’—and my own—present and future relationships to technology in deeper and more productive ways: How to pursue the good, the true and the beautiful amid the constant din of a world suffused in smartphone-induced distraction? How to minimize exposure to harmful content, cyberbullying and online social drama? How to inoculate the brain against the craving for online attention and validation? They offered a few guiding principles to consider.
Seek the good. For Deacon Chris Roberts, the president of Martin Saints Classical High School, a Chesterton Academy just outside Philadelphia, concerns about problematic content online are real but secondary to the smartphone’s promise of constant distraction. Deacon Roberts—who with his wife mostly homeschooled their four daughters until high school—co-founded Martin Saints, where he seeks to instill in students the ability to “be intentional in the real world.”
Deacon Roberts’s teenage daughters are going through their high school years with access to flip phones but not to smartphones. He expects they will own and use smartphones once they depart for college. But it is his hope that the principled resolve he demonstrates—not to allow his family to be swept into uncritical adoption of technological distraction and to teach by example the habit of making “ordered choices” by restricting his own smartphone use to specific times and places—will cultivate, in both his own daughters and in their classmates at Martin Saints, the capacity for true joy as Catholic adults.
The restrictions have not prevented—and indeed, have fostered—her teens’ development of meaningful friendships (and ones mostly free from social media-induced drama).
The ability to cultivate “interior silence” by spending time in nature and in conversation is crucial to our spirituality and to our joy as Catholics, Deacon Roberts explained to me. We lose that most important ability to “seek the good” if we do not give ourselves the space to be in touch with nature and creation. That is why allowing the thoughtless use of technology—with its incessant presence—to blunt our spiritual faculties is a grave mistake.
Cason and Dan Cheely, Philadelphia-area Catholic parents of seven children who range in age from 17 to 2, echo Deacon Roberts’s concerns about the ways that an incessant pull toward technological distraction can diminish young people’s relationship with God. As Cason Cheely explained to me, the biggest worry that she and her husband have about technology—all its problematic content aside—is its ability to “crowd out” that “still, small voice” of God that speaks to us “in the quiet, in the solitude, in that empty space.”
The elementary-age Cheely children attend Regina Angelorum Academy, a classical Catholic pre-K-through-grade-8 school that requires parents to sign a pledge that they will not get their child an internet-enabled smartphone until after eighth grade. The Cheely teenagers attend various Catholic high schools where technology is integrated into the school day. They do have access to smartphones—albeit with the web browser disabled and very few applications. Extending restrictions on technology into their children’s high school years is challenging and countercultural. But Ms. Cheely told me that the restrictions have not prevented—and indeed, have fostered—her teens’ development of meaningful friendships (and ones mostly free from social media-induced drama).
Avoid exposure to the bad. Durrell Harris, the principal of St. Raymond’s, a Catholic elementary school in Philadelphia, said that most young children there have access to cellphones—but not during school hours. At St. Raymond’s, which is an Independence Mission School serving predominantly socioeconomically disadvantaged children, almost all students get smartphones by fourth grade. Most get them for safety reasons, as parents want to be able to track where their children are.
Mr. Harris, however, said that ensuring the school is also a “safe space” means “keeping the building smartphone-free.” As the assistant principal of a public high school before taking the helm at St. Raymond’s, Mr. Harris spent more than half of his time addressing issues related to children and technology. Sometimes disputes that began online erupted into face-to-face violence; other times, cyberbullying itself was the problem.
In likely the most succinct distillation possible of how most families feel about smartphones, Harris said, “Everyone knows it’s a problem, but no one wants to be without one.”
Mr. Harris explained to me that parents, both at his prior institution and at St. Raymond’s, are concerned about students’ exposure to inappropriate content and to bullies online. In likely the most succinct distillation possible of how most families feel about smartphones, Harris said, “Everyone knows it’s a problem, but no one wants to be without one.”
Still, rendering phones inaccessible during the school day is an important and appreciated part of the culture at St. Raymond’s. Parents and students in Mr. Harris’s school know what high school students in Springfield, Mass., learned after they started using magnetically locking cellphone pouches to eliminate phone use during the school day: Despite initial resistance to the policy, they say it’s “nice talking with people face to face.”
Technology is, for Mr. Harris, both a “gift and a curse.” It is a gift because students in schools without as many resources can nonetheless access differentiated instruction through online learning programs. The curse is that we are saddling children with the adult obligation to understand—as Mr. Harris explains to his elementary schoolers in a fall assembly—that they are responsible and accountable, forever, every time they click “send.”
Beat addiction to the clicks.For Howie Brown, the director of admissions at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, a Jesuit boys’ high school in Philadelphia, and a Catholic father of two young children, today’s smartphone technology is a “fine tool, but a bad master.” So it should be kept mostly away from children (who cannot help but be mastered by it) and offered to teens (who are learning to be adults) only with thoughtful directives about how, why and in what spirit it is to be used.
Mr. Brown, who graduated from “The Prep” himself in 1999, explained to me how technology has altered almost every aspect of high school life since he was a student. For example, students’ class schedules are now stored in an app on their phones. So, while the devices must remain away during classes, they are out in hallways, as students check those schedules.
This new ubiquity of smartphones has prompted critical engagement among certain teens.
This new ubiquity of smartphones has prompted critical engagement among certain teens. Mr. Brown told me that some students seem increasingly self-aware about the time that social media can waste, and intentional about avoiding it—whether mostly or altogether—because they would rather be engaging in face-to-face pursuits. This sentiment echoes (albeit in a far less extreme way) the worldview of some Brooklyn, N.Y., teens who call themselves the “Luddite Club.” Eschewing smartphones entirely, these high schoolers meet regularly to hang out in person, and are not in communication with one another between meetings. Some of them hope to grow their numbers on the college campuses where they alight in a few years.
While Mr. Brown worries that constant access to smartphones and adaptation to social media’s communicative norms can adversely affect students’ academics and particularly their writing, his biggest concern about social media is the way that it feeds and inculcates a need for online validation and attention such that “the appetite grows with the eating.” This is why he is careful to keep his young children away from social media, and to model for them intentional habits around technology. Mr. Brown wants his young son and daughter to develop the capacity for “focus and attention” that grows as they do—through intentional engagement with family and friends, not through “clicks.”
Thinking Ahead, Apart and Together
Jonathan Haidt contends that social media like Instagram and Twitter that utilize “posting” models, where “people on there are the product which is sold to advertisers,” are “unsafe at any speed” for children—especially girls—younger than 16. He believes that we should find a way to ban these apps for people under that age. “Wait Until Eighth”—the pledge that groups of families can take to resist purchasing their children an internet-enabled smartphone before eighth grade—is good. Extending the wait until about the 10th grade is even better.
I agree with Mr. Haidt—who is no hysterical fearmonger, but rather a sober researcher and also a father—both about the crux of the problem (these posting-centric iterations of social media) and about how to ameliorate it (pass laws regulating the age at which these social media companies can turn children into fodder for profit).
Of course, laws banning people younger than 16 from these types of social media—like the one recently proposed by Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, that is likely to receive support from some of his Democratic colleagues—would be nearly impossible to enforce, and they will not fix the full scope of the problem. But they do not need to be perfectly enforced, nor do they need to fix everything. They just need to give parents like my husband and me, who intend to wait until high school to offer our kids limited access to any internet or social media on smartphones (though I expect we’ll give them talk and text capacity several years before that, to facilitate those independent experiences!), the legal high ground that will encourage more people to feel like “waiting until eighth” is the moderate position: splitting the difference between parents who recklessly flout the law and parents who follow it to the letter.
It may help to consider social media legislation the way we consider legislation around another addictive substance: alcohol. Like many people, I tend to think that the legal drinking age should be 18, not 21. That there is a group of people who can die in the defense of their country but cannot buy beer in it strikes me as absurd. Moreover, the fact that alcohol is a forbidden fruit well into adulthood is infantilizing and, many contend, creates a broader atmosphere for the kind of binge drinking that Americans engage in at far higher rates than our counterparts in Europe (where moderate alcohol consumption is a part of life from childhood onward).
If we as a society aim for 16 as the approved age for access to social media, many of us may land at 14.
All that said, however, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act that was passed in 1984 and made the national drinking age 21 has demonstrably lowered alcohol consumption among teens, and especially among younger teens. This makes sense: Shoot for 21, and even if you miss, you still land at 17. But shoot for 18, and when you miss, you land at 14.
We all knew kids when we were in high school whose parents let them have friends over for alcohol-soaked parties. Many of these parents recalled their own teenage debauchery with fondness, which is part of why they permitted what those of us with law-abiding parents deemed reckless behavior. But there were also parents who expected their kids not to drink at all. And there were those—perhaps the plurality—who shrugged off social drinking in a 16-year-old but would have been alarmed and incensed to discover any drinking at all, let alone binge drinking, in a 13-year-old.
With better legislation, I suspect a similar attitude would apply to children and social media (although few people would look upon adolescence spent staring at a screen with nostalgia). So if we as a society aim for 16 as the approved age for access to social media, many of us may land at 14. This is not perfect, but it still would be enormously better than what we have right now, when many fifth and sixth graders nationwide become addicted to internet-enabled smartphones before they are anywhere close to mature enough to navigate the perils of these devices.
We cannot roll back the clock. But we also do not have to accept eternal devolution of our kids, their childhoods—and ultimately our republic—at the hands of a few digital economy oligarchs. This epidemic of technology-related teen mental health concerns is a spiritual crisis that transcends religion and politics. Surely we as Catholics can agree on that. Perhaps we can even experience a rare moment of unity as we help to persuade our friends of other faiths and no faith to come together in an attempt to craft necessary but imperfect solutions to a problem that affects us all.