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Buss: Why I won’t give my kids screens

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

I have two little boys. Even though they’re a tot and a baby, my biggest concern right now isn’t how to get through teething; it’s how to keep cellphones out of their hands for the next 15 years.

Kids and teenagers today face an epidemic without a cure: screen time — and all the dysfunction, bad habits and mental health problems that accompany it. But the head-in-the-phone stance is more than mere annoyance. This behavior could actually determine whether a young person lives or dies.

I’m old enough to remember summers well before cellphones. The days were fun — and spontaneous. A morning at the neighbor kids’ backyard might turn into a visit to the city pool, a picnic lunch (without parents), and extend until the sun went down as the whole neighborhood played kickball. And if we did leave the neighborhood, we had to think critically about how to communicate with home about where we were.

Do those childhood experiences exist anymore? Is it naively nostalgic to wish them for my own kids?

It’s the height of summer, and I’ve seen hardly any kids playing outside in my family-filled neighborhood. It seemed odd — and embarrassingly, worrisome — to see a group of teenagers roaming through the park last week as it disrupted the typical silence of the streets.

Where are all the kids? Looking at their phones, or tablets, or video games, or whatever. Inside.

The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015, according to data analyzed by psychologist Jean Twenge, who is an expert on generational differences. She tags severe behavioral changes in those born between 1995 and 2012 (iGens) to the prevalence of the smartphone, arguing that the “twin rise” of those devices and social media is transforming a generation unlike ever before. And in terrible ways.

New government data shows the suicide rate among teenage girls reached a 40-year high in 2015, with the rate for girls doubling just between 2007 and 2015. For teenage boys, there was a 31 percent increase.

“Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” says Twenge.

But it doesn’t seem like anyone, namely the parents of teens and soon-to-be teens, is listening.

Depression and suicide are the logical conclusion of the kind of introverted narcissism fueled by social media and individualized, isolated screen time. Adults can separate the picture-perfect façade of Instagram (I’m showing my age; I know kids use Snapchat) from the real life behind its photos. But that task becomes much harder for a teen, much less a child, whose entire reality may have been formed by what he or she sees online.

When that feedback turns negative, as it so often does on the anonymous internet, it’s no surprise their worlds come crashing down.

I’ve yet to come across millennials my age who say they wish social media had been available when we were in middle school. It’s a horrific thought — yet one we’re imposing on our kids every day.

Parents’ blasé attitude toward their kids’ screen usage can be witnessed at any restaurant. Where families once talked to each other over a meal, everyone from 3-year-olds to 16-year-olds now sit buried with their nose in their phone. While screens are a great babysitter, they’re like placing heroin in the hands of kids and walking away. Addiction is almost immediate, and withdrawal too annoying or cumbersome to ever deal with.

Millennials like to place blame for their generational problems at the feet of the baby boomers, who arguably encouraged their entitlement, and, along with Gen Xers have let screen time take over. But we’re bound to make the same mistakes with “iGen” if we don’t radically adjust how we let our kids spend their time.


Twitter: @KaitlynBuss