Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

What’s the Matter with Kids Today?

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

So said Socrates more than 2000 years ago about the youth of ancient Greece. And it continues, generation after generation. In my generation it was rock n’ roll. When my kids were young, TV was going to rot their brains. Now cell phones and social media are driving them to distraction and threatening to put an end to “real” relationships. Or so we would be led to believe. Last month, investors sent an open letter to Apple, requesting more parental controls in technology for children, citing research showing the harm these technologies are doing to children, particularly to their mental health.

But all the doom & gloom about modern technology is also receiving strong push back from the scientific community. Here are five points challenging us to think twice before buying into the hype about digital technologies and mental health. Once again, it’s not so simple.

1. Kids aren’t doing too badly, it turns out. By many objective measures – high school graduation rates, teen pregnancy rates, college attendance rates – young people today are doing better than in previous generations.  On the other hand, studies show that young people are taking longer to reach certain markers of adulthood like marriage and working for pay, but maybe that’s not so bad considering we are living much longer these days. However, it is concerning that we have some evidence for an increase in depression among young people in the US, although data from around the world are lacking. But are cell phones and social media to blame for this? Correlational studies can’t answer this question, and the truth may be more nuanced than it seems at first glance.

2. It matters what you do online. Passive consumption of information on social media – lurking and reading other’s facebook profiles, for example – makes people feel worse afterward, whereas actively interacting with people – sharing messages, posts and comments with friends – can have all kinds of positive effects. Simply measuring overall screen time in studies of teens’ online activity doesn’t get at what they are doing on their devices, and that could make all the difference.

3. Social media can increase social connectedness. My grandmother moved to the United States at the age of 17 years and never heard her mother’s voice again. In contrast, my son is getting married this spring, and he is inviting friends he’s made – and kept in touch with – from all around the world. Social media facilitates this kind of global and meaningful connectedness to a greater degree than ever before. A review of studies from the last 15 years shows that young people use digital communications in all kinds of positive ways to expand and deepen their social connections; demonstrate connection and affection (think “liking”), organize social movements (think #metoo), and plan most of their off-line social life.

4. New tools for wellbeing. Online platforms and mobile apps are also being used in innovative ways to identify youth at risk and offer ‘just-in-time’ interventions and support. Brief interventions, including computer-assisted cognitive behavioral therapy delivered through mobile devices, have the capacity to improve people’s psychological wellbeing and reduce depression and anxiety. Researchers at Columbia University and elsewhere are also planning studies to test how basic mental health services can be delivered through mobile phone-based applications by community health workers in remote areas in countries like Brazil, Kenya, and Mozambique.

5. New technologies x existing vulnerabilities. Today’s technologies have the capacity to reflect and amplify existing vulnerabilities in a way that never existed before. The reality is that the technology is potential that brings more opportunity and more risk – it all depends. In her commentary in Nature, researcher Candice Odgers points out that, as is often the case, kids who are doing well psychologically and socially show virtually no sign of being worse off as a function of digital technologies. However, digital technologies can negatively impact vulnerable kids – including kids living in situations of economic disadvantage and kids with pre-existing social and psychological vulnerabilities.

From Socrates in Ancient Greece to the modern day, there has always been handwringing about what is wrong with the next generation.

It seems to be in our evolutionary heritage that the elders worry about the youth. With good reason. They represent the future of our species, and we know our days are numbered. Will they fulfill all we hope and desire for humanity?

But keeping in mind that our parents worried about us the way we worry about our kids may help us reduce our anxiety and might actually free us up to examine the complex and nuanced data about the impact of digital technologies today so that we can address the mental health issues where they really exist. It might also help to consider what we would do without our smart phones for a week.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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