My fiance has a thirteen-year-old daughter and we see the top of her head more often than her beautiful smile. This is because she is always staring down at her phone, hyper focused on the latest images on her Instagram feed or the incoming “snaps” from her Snapchat account. Homework and grades have slipped and she appears exhausted every morning. It is not being overworked at school or over-programmed with extracurricular activities. She is up on the phone late at night, texting, sending photos, in long group chats on Instagram. To combat this we have established dinner time technology rules where phones have to be put on silent and left in another room so that we can have a face to face, verbal conversation. We’ve implemented homework rules that inevitably are broken. When the phone is taken away a complete meltdown fueled by panic ensues.
This weekend I learned we are not alone. The struggle is real people! Not shocking, but very upsetting, is the fact that technology and social media addiction is prevalent. Elizabeth Vargas, 2020 investigative journalist, reported on the real battle with technology addition and how similar it is to her own struggles with alcoholism. After following three people with technology dependencies, Elizabeth recounts that “…all three people we profile in this hour revealed they struggled with anxiety and used gaming or social media to ‘escape’ or numb it. That is exactly how I used … alcohol.” I often hear bits and pieces of my soon-to-be-stepdaughter’s conversations as she stomps through our house on the phone with friends. She complains about feeling anxious and pressure to fit in at school, or to say the right things, or to have a boy like her in time, or to be out every free minute of her life doing something “cool.” I think she is anxious at this ever so awkward phase in her life and her addiction to social media is not only playing into her anxieties of being a normal, uncomfortable teenager in a zoo with other teens coming of age, but it is also producing that new age mental illness coined Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).
It seems like left and right we hear about stories of teens committing suicide because of bullying, especially cyber-bullying, and I keep thinking about how I was raised without all this technology and digital connectivity literally in the palm of my hand. Today children and teens are exposed to a seemingly endless world of knowledge, with a good portion of it being negative. The internet is a free for all and children, if not monitored, are being exposed to things beyond their ability to comprehend and are able to act out through harsh keystrokes and hide behind a screen.
A teen named Brooke from California was featured in ABC’s 20/20 for excessive cell phone and social media usage. The fifteen-year-old girl was given an iPhone for her 12th birthday and it was a downhill slide ever since. Brook has been deemed obsessed with social media, staying up all hours of the night to check her social media feed, even claiming it had “become a part of her…a part of her heart.” The saddest part of the story is that out of the obsessive-compulsive behavior with technology grew an alcohol and drug problem. Brooke had to go to treatment for all of these issues, which I fear have stemmed from the behaviors around social media and her exposure to all things on those platforms.
It leads me to question what age is appropriate for a smartphone, of a social media account? Instagram, Snapchat, and I am sure the rest of the social media platforms out there have age restrictions, but it is as easy as entering a fake birthday to get around that. Giving keys to a car and a license to drive and be exposed independently to the world is something kids have to wait for until they are mature and of a certain age. So why would be give them the keys to navigate the confusing, perverse and scary world of social media and the internet so young?