Banning smartphones? How can parents respond to the mental health crisis in our young people?

  • Blog
  • 14/05/2024

Banning smartphones? Setting age restrictions for social media? How can parents respond to the mental health crisis in our young people and the link to smartphone use?

There has been a surge of urgent and necessary discussion about the disturbing content available and the harm heavy social media use is causing to our children and young people. The research presented in Jonathan Haidt’s new and top-selling book The Anxious Generation has helpfully highlighted the clear detrimental effects of smartphone use for children and teens. In response, we must ask ourselves: What is the appropriate age for a child or teen to have a social media account? Should we consider a ban on smartphones and social media for Australian kids altogether? 

Jonathan Haidt gives two critical contributors to the dramatic increase in this generation’s deterioration in mental health. The first is: 

The decline of the play-based childhood, which began in the 1980s and accelerated in the ‘90s. He writes that ‘many parents in Anglo countries began to reduce children’s access to unsupervised outdoor free play out of media-fueled fears for their safety, even though the “real world” was becoming increasingly safe in the 1990s. The loss of free play and the rise of continual adult supervision deprived children of what they needed most to overcome the normal fears and anxieties of childhood.’i 

The second is where mobile phones come into focus—although it is easy to see how the loss of free play without technology feeds into the issue with kids and devices. 

Haidt calls this second contributor: 

The rise of the phone-based childhood, which began in the late 2000s and accelerated in the early 2010s. This was precisely the period during which adolescents traded in their flip phones for smartphones, which were loaded with social media platforms supported by the new high-speed internet and unlimited data plans.  

He conveys empathy for parents in saying: 

 ‘Few of us understood what was happening in children’s virtual worlds and we lacked the knowledge to protect them from tech companies that had designed their products to be addictive. ‘  

How were we to know how to help our kids and ourselves navigate this dramatically changed social landscape!! 

Beware of fear-driven responses to this crisis. 

As I have listened to discussions about the worrying statistics about social media’s impacts on our children and young people, I hear helpful stories of how parents have taken leadership in this area well before the release of this book. The episode linked here is an excellent example of this. I also hear lots of talk about banning social media for children under a certain age—e.g., 16 or 18. I get that response. And I hear it from parents I’ve worked with who hear about the myriad problems of teen phone access – the devastating impacts of porn on the developing brain and identity and the sleep deprivation impacts on a child’s coping at school… I could go on.   

A response to immediately try to ban something our kids are already engaged in will have a degree of fear behind it. It will likely add to the angst between parents and their kids about gaming and accessing social media. This is where the energy needs to go first to the parent – not to reactively try to change the child and fuel a conflict escalation or cultivate a child’s going behind their parent’s back.

This is an opportunity for parents to open up good conversations rather than impose rules. For parents to ask questions and listen well. And to share their steep learning curve in figuring out how best to parent in a world that is so different from the one we grew up in. It’s also an opportunity for parents to address their use of smartphones and talk to their children about how they are setting new ground rules based on thinking about the negative impacts on self and relationships. Parents can share how they will become more responsible in creating boundaries to help their child on a more health-enhancing trajectory. The boundaries will be based on what a parent can take charge of rather than get into a futile struggle to get a child to change their behaviours through negative instruction and threats.  

When it comes to being the best resource for our children regarding social media use, there cannot be one strategy that will fit all families. There are so many variations in where a parent is starting from – including the child’s age and how entrenched their phone use has become. Hence, parents need to make their project to cultivate their best wisdom for their family situation. Positive change comes from calm and loving parent leadership. It is principle and relationship-based change – not technique-based. Parents are committed to good conversations over time. Children grow in understanding that their parents have their best interests at heart and are far from perfect. They are willing to address their own issues that compromise their health and that of their families.   

I suggest this fundamental question for every parent when considering the issue of smartphones and their impacts.   

What do I want my children to learn from the way I handle this concerning issue? 

This question starts with the parent and considers the effect the parent’s response has on the child. It grows a parent’s character rather than creating more intensity and confusion around trying to change a child. And isn’t this the best we can bring to the current anxious generation –  to let them experience a parent working hard to live wisely and relationally in a dramatically changing world? 

Listen to more – in our new podcast series: PARENTING THROUGH STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT – follow on your podcast app.

Banning smartphones? How can parents respond to the mental health crisis in our young people?

Parenting with Clarity

Parenting with Clarity: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Their Supporters Who Want to Contribute to Children's Flourishing
Buy the book
Related articles
One Parent’s Story A – Part 2: Observing and Learning as a Parent Rather than Worrying

One Parent’s Story A – Part 2: Observing and Learning as a Parent Rather than Worrying

  • Blog
  • 07/06/2017

Joe was beginning to see how his best efforts to help his daughter and family to have happy times together were actually contributing to a lowering of Chloe’s resilience. This is the next instalment in the story of one parent, Joe, as he worked to figure out how he could be a resource to his…

New book: Parenting with Clarity

New book: Parenting with Clarity

  • Blog
  • 30/04/2024

Parenting with Clarity: a new book that is a companion to Parent Hope programs.

Free Parent Course

Free Parent Course

  • Blog
  • 08/11/2023

Parenting for flourishing children – new free parent course introducing the Parent Hope Project ideas.