Commentary: How cellphones are connecting teens with danger

As a pediatrician, I meet every day with parents overwhelmed by the responsibility of making the right choices for their babies. Hours of research, anguished soul-searching, piercing self-doubt – and that’s just choosing a car seat model. Once you’ve cut your teeth in the baby stroller wars and move on to even more meaningful and controversial territory, the stress can be paralyzing. And yet, every day, my heart is uplifted by the great strength parents display as they make all the decisions they need to make in their child’s best interest.

Why does that stop at age 10?

I am not worried about the babies of America; they have the most dedicated parents around. I am, however, very worried about the teens and preteens of America: They are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis — and the people tasked with watching over them are not even putting up a fight.

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The crisis is real. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide in teens have exploded the last 10 years. One out of every 3 American teens now suffers from anxiety. Hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts and actions have doubled. In one typical survey, the American College Health Association documented a dramatic increase in self-reported ‘overwhelming anxiety’ – an already frightening 49 percent of students in 2010 jumping up to 62 percent last year. Here in Austin, pediatric mental health providers are overwhelmed, with many no longer willing to see new clients, leaving me few good or timely options when it comes to finding help for my own patients.

What can you, as parents, do to help protect your child’s mental health in the midst of this epidemic? While there is undoubtedly a complex interplay of root causes at work, here is one simple trick that will pay off big time in helping your family: Take the smartphone away.

In “iGen” by psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge, she details the unprecedented spike in mental health problems among our newest generation of teens — the first generation to grow up with smartphones, Facebook and social media. A key takeaway from all the research: “Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception.”

To reiterate, “All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”

The arrow of causation is not in doubt, either: It’s not that already unhappy teens are more likely to spend time online, but that the more time you spend on sites like Facebook, the more unhappy you become. Nor is the unhappiness just a passing mood, either, as kids who spend more time on social media are more likely to develop clinical depression and to formulate plans for suicide.

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When I talk to parents about all the other negative effects of smartphones — stunted attention spans, the death of conversation at the dinner table, the decreased sleep time, the wasted daylight hours — they often concede the point, but tell me it’s still worth it in the name of safety.

Smartphones do not make your children safer. They do make your child more likely to kill himself or herself. If there were a vaccine that had this side effect profile, it would be banned in a second. If there were a car seat that left so much damage in its wake, it would be pulled from shelves. I’d compare social media to street drugs — but my understanding is that crack at least makes you feel happy for a while, though Facebook doesn’t. Don’t stop fighting for your children just because they’re no longer on the breast. Smartphones are destroying their generation and, yes, making them unsafe – get rid of them.

Think of the time and money you’ll save. And think of your children. Instead of zoning out — with noses buried in the latest status updates in their palms, trying to find the nearest WiFi network to connect to — maybe they’ll be able to uncrick their necks to the beauty of the natural world — and to truly connecting with you.

Gaty is with Chisholm Trail Pediatrics in Round Rock.

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