Saturday, September 30, 2023

Swimming Upstream: Screens and Social Media

3. Screens and social media

There’s another reason why you rarely see kids out and about these days, roaming around in packs or playing in front of their homes. It’s because more and more of them are inside glued to screens.

Years ago, I watched my stepson, now 23, fall down a social media rabbit hole and, with some nudges from his mother’s Trump-supporting family, emerge on the alt right side of things — with a fully realized depressive disorder, to boot. My partner and I didn’t have much of a say as to when he got a phone, or how much time he spent on it, but we also weren’t quite yet aware of how evil — because really, there’s no other word — social media had become.

My stepson and his peers were the user testers, the generation of children who proved how easily young minds could get hooked on this stuff — and how much money there was to be made.

But now we’re so deep in, it’s hard to know how to claw our way out. My daughter has made repeated claims that she is the only one in her sixth-grade class without a smartphone. Independent research, conducted by me, has found this to be not entirely true, but it’s close. She says everyone spends recess talking about TikTok dances, and she feels left out.

GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher and I probably don’t see eye to eye on much of anything, but when he recently called TikTok “digital fentanyl,” I had to agree. Lest you think I’m exaggerating here, take it from Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke:

Social connection has become druggified by social-media apps, making us vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption. These apps can cause the release of large amounts of dopamine into our brains’ reward pathway all at once, just like heroin, or meth, or alcohol.


Like nearly all other social media platforms, TikTok is designed to leave the user continuously craving more; it bombards users with short, disparate pieces of information that destroy our ability to focus; and it serves up content based on what an algorithm has decided you’re most likely to respond to, regardless of whether or not that content may cause you harm or has any relationship to truth.

It’s partially about the intentionally addictive nature of social media, partially about the potentially harmful content, and partially about the social isolation endemic to its usage. This potent trifecta has devastating effects.

One study found that the 33 percent increase in depression amongst 8th through 12th graders between 2010 and 2015 “correlates with smartphone adoption during that period, even when matched year by year. In the same period, the suicide rate for girls in that age group increased by 65 percent.”

For now, my daughter has a not-so-smartphone, one that allows for texting and calling only. But still, I feel like I’m caught in a losing battle, not sure how much longer I can keep drawing the line.

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